The Dark Side of Creativity

Quick quiz …

Which department(s) inside an advertising would be most likely to engage in dishonest behavior? The least?

  • Accounting
  • Copywriting
  • Account Management
  • Legal
  • Human Resources
  • IT
  • Design

(Share your thoughts in the comments … then come back and read the rest of the post.)

This was the very thing that Dan Ariely studied at a large ad agency (and wrote about in his book “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty“) …

It was an extension to an earlier study that demonstrated “that a creative mind-set could make people cheat a bit more.”

Of the people in the ad agency he asked questions like:

  • How likely would you be to inflate your business expense report?
  • How likely are you to take home office supplies from work?
  • How likely would you be to tell your supervisor that progress was made on a project when none has been made at all?

Ariely’s conclusion after the ad agency study: “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.”

Does that help you choose the departments that are most likely to engage in dishonest behavior?

(Here’s a further hint: the people inside these departments are also more prone to melancholy.)

Fortunately Ariely includes a wonderful chapter on guidelines to help you fight cheating and maintain your honesty … particularly the Broken Windows Theory … which states you should attack small acts of dishonesty early and often to keep them from snowballing into higher levels of infidelity.

Great advice. So …

If you love what you just read, then subscribe to CopyBot. And follow me on Twitter or Google+.

Image source: Why  We Lie


  1. Nick Fielden says

    Hi DF,
    I guess I’ve got in early because I’m a day ahead. It gives me the chance to linger, to wander about your piece in a leisurely way and to cogitate. Here’s my two-cents’ worth.

    I believe the premise of the question, ‘which department would behave the most, or least dishonestly’, is false. A department is inanimate; it is an element of the hierarchical structure of the business. It is a-moral and ethically neutral. To think otherwise (as Ariely presumably does), is to attach a label to a class of work exclusively on account of its nature. And to suggest that those who fill the requisite rolls in any particular department should be categorised according to their class of work or responsibility is to be guilty of – what would the PC word be – occupationalism, jobism, professional-classism?

    I treat so-called surveys of human behaviour with a shovelful of discretion. What if those who supposedly behaved more dishonestly than others were simply more stupid, and got found out? Does caution, intelligence and covering one’s tracks negate dishonesty?

    Dishonesty is universal. It does not gravitate towards one and not another. Moreover, dishonest thought is as much dishonest behaviour as the act itself. Given that we all conjure up dishonest thoughts, the absence of enactment neither lessens nor increases the degree of immorality. I would say, ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’.

    • says

      Well, the results came from the people in each department (and since it is actually people who make up departments, they can’t be morally neutral) … they filled out the questionnaires, anonymously, too. The point is that each department attracts a certain disposition … in this case one or two of these departments is WAY more creative than the other. And is it those people in that department who tend toward cheating than compared to other departments. One of Ariely’s key findings in all of his cheating studies is that everyone cheats a little. Some of us, however, cheat more (and some less) … and it tends to be those with a creative bent who cheat more.

      • Nick Fielden says

        Did Ariely test for creativity among those who answered his questionnaire? Why should lawyers or accountants, just to take two examples amongst your list, be less creative than others? (By the way, you have not specified which departments you regard as being the most creative). If creativity is synonymous with a lively imagination, lawyers are among the most creative people I know – the good ones at any rate. I can express that view with a degree of credibility as I used to practice as one, and came across examples of creative thinking that impressed. On the same theme, have you not heard of ‘creative accounting’?

        Ariely’s survey is a good example of discovering truth in the obvious. It’s like examining the most common cause of injury to cyclists – they fall off their bikes. If a survey relies solely on replies given to a questionnaire without objective testing, frankly it’s not worth a penny.

        Finally, it’s interesting to note that so many of those who amuse themselves with cheap jibes at the legal profession, when finding themselves in trouble or with a problem, are the first to run to a lawyer for help.

        • says

          To be honest, I felt that way reading the entire book: he is stating the obvious. Most of his studies had that vibe. I wasn’t overly impressed with his studies. Had the myth busters feel to it.

          The departments most likely to cheat (according to Ariely) were copywriting and design.

          I’m with you. I think all disciplines can be creative. Enron, WorldCom, Tyco … I don’t think those started in the design department.

          And I don’t make fun of lawyers any more than I make fun of myself. I’m an egalitarian when it comes to comedy. 😀

  2. says

    I think cheating is based on one’s personality, but since I must choose, i’d say account manager. They’re in charge. They’re the least likely to be suspected.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *