|brainpickings.org, opgeslagen 23-06-2014, door Maria Popova
Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely on the Relationship Between
Creativity and Dishonesty
“Creativity can help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even
more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.”
The first use of the U.S. Postal Service was to sell products that didn’t exist.
Spam dominates global email volume today. Hoaxes and pranks have been ritualized
in everyday culture. And yet, we tend to believe that dishonesty and fraud are
confined to “bad people,” of whom there are far fewer than the rest of us “good
people” — that immoral behavior, as social psychologist Philip Zimbardo puts it,
is a case of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely belongs to the rare breed of scientists who are
both actively engaged in empirical research, running all kinds of fascinating
experiments in the lab, and keenly skilled in synthesizing those findings into
equally fascinating insights into human nature, then communicating those
articulately and engagingly to a non-scientist reader. That’s precisely what he
has previously done in Predictably Irrational, in which he demonstrates through
clever experiments that even our most “rational” decisions are driven by our
hopelessly emotional selves, and The Upside of Irrationality, where he explores
the unexpected benefits of defying logic. Now comes The (Honest) Truth About
Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, in which Ariely asks
himself a seemingly simple question — “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few
bad apples, or is it a more widespread problem?” — and goes on to reveal the
surprising, illuminating, often unsettling truths that underpin the
uncomfortable answer. Like cruelty, dishonesty turns out to be a remarkably
prevalent phenomenon better explained by circumstances and cognitive processes
than by concepts like character.
Ariely writes in the introduction:
||In addition to exploring the forces that shape dishonesty, one of
the main practical benefits of the behavioral economics approach is that
it shows us the internal and environmental influences on our behavior.
Once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we
discover that we are not helpless in the face of our human follies (dishonesty
included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so
we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes.
(Of course, one is tempted to counter that we still need moral philosophy to
account for the gap between awareness and action, because simply becoming aware
of a tendency hardly guarantees there will be the will or desire to change it
for the better.)
Particularly interesting is a chapter on the relationship between creativity and
dishonesty. The same habits of mind that allow us to create elaborate ideas turn
out to also be responsible for enabling dishonesty and the subsequent
rationalizations justifying our immoral behavior.
||We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or
feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us
from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and
We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world
around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with
reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story
after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds
reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing
and positive light, so much the better.
That penchant for justification, in fact — which Ariely places at the “control
tower of thinking, reasoning, and morality” — is a powerful driver of how we
make decisions towards what we want to do and reverse-engineer them towards what
we believe the right thing to do is.
||[S]ometimes (perhaps often) we don’t make choices based on our explicit
preferences. Instead, we have a gut feeling about what we want, and we go
through a process of mental gymnastics, applying all kinds of justifications to
manipulate the criteria. That way, we can get what we really want, but at the
same time keep up the appearance — to ourselves and to others — that we are
acting in accordance with our rational and well-reasoned preferences.
Here’s where it gets interesting:
||[T]he difference between creative and less creative individuals comes into play
mostly when there is ambiguity in the situation at hand and, with it, more room
for justification… Put simply, the link between creativity and dishonesty seems
related to the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we are doing the
right thing, even when we are not. The more creative we are, the more we are
able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.
But could it be, Ariely wondered, greater intelligence was responsible for
better stories? One experiment measured the brain structure of pathological
liars, and compared it to normal controls — more specifically, the ratio of gray
matter (the neural tissue that makes up the bulk of our brains) to white matter
(the wiring that connects those brain cells). Liars, it turned out, had 14% less
gray matter than the controls but had 22-26% more white matter in the prefrontal
cortex, suggesting that they were more likely to make connections between
different memories and ideas as increased connectivity means greater access to
the reserve of associations and memories stored in gray matter. “Intelligence,”
it turned out, wasn’t correlated with dishonesty — but creativity, which we
already know is all about connecting things, was.
In another experiment, Ariely tested how “moral flexibility” was related to the
level of creativity required in different jobs by visiting an ad agency and
studying the capacity for dishonesty in representatives of its various
||[T]he level of moral flexibility was highly related to the level of creativity
required in their department and by their job. Designers and copy-writers were
at the top of the moral flexibility scale, and the accountants ranked at the
bottom. It seems that when ‘creativity’ is in our job description, we are more
likely to say ‘Go for it’ when it comes to dishonest behavior.
Ultimately, Ariely explains the osmotic balance between creativity and
dishonestly through our capacity for storytelling:
||Just as creativity enables us to envision novel solutions to tough problems, it
can also enable us to develop original paths around rules, all the while
allowing us to reinterpret information in a self-serving way… [C]reativity can
help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even more dishonest
but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.
The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty goes on to explore such fascinating subjects
as why we cheat on our diets despite our most earnest resolve, how favors affect
our choices, what companies and politicians do to pave the way for dishonesty,
and a wealth more.
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