“Oh! what a tangled web we weave,” Sir Walter Scott wrote in his 1808 epic poem Marmion, “When first we practice to deceive!” But what a pretty web it might be, researchers might add today. The idea that being a good liar helps one be a better actor, novelist, or painter isn’t a new one, but a group of business school professors recently put the idea to an empirical test and came up with some interesting conclusions about the connection between deceit and creativity. Not only might artists be better at lying, cheating, and general rule breaking, but it’s also possible that such behaviors might actually add to one’s creativity. At the risk of plunging the art world and the world in general into chaos, can we ignore the question of whether liars make better artists?
In the February 18, 2014 issue of Psychological Science, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and University of Southern California business school professor Scott S. Wiltermuth published their article titled “Evil Genius? How Dishonesty Can Lead to Greater Creativity.” You can click on the link to read the full details of their experiments, but they basically tested how people put in situations involving deceit or rule breaking were then able to perform creative tasks. “We propose that dishonest and creative behavior have something in common: They both involve breaking rules,” Gino and Wiltermuth write. “Because of this shared feature, creativity may lead to dishonesty (as shown in prior work), and dishonesty may lead to creativity (the hypothesis we tested in this research).” They performed five experiments to analyze the issue from every angle. In experiment 1, even after “account[ing] for individual differences in their creative ability,” subjects “who cheated were subsequently more creative than noncheaters.” Even after randomizing in experiments 2 and 3, the results suggest that “acting dishonestly leads to greater creativity in subsequent tasks.” Finally, after mediating (experiment 4) and moderating (experiment 5) the possibility of a lying—creativity connection, they found that “[t]he link between dishonesty and creativity is explained by a heightened feeling of being unconstrained by rules.” Playing the rebel by breaking the rules thus frees us to be more creative in other ways, such as the arts.
But did Cezanne need to knock over a bank before painting his Post-Impressionist Mont Sainte-Victoire? There’s a long tradition of creative artists as rule-breaking threats to society. Nineteenth century novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne felt impelled to include faux claims to realism such as the “Custom House” prelude to The Scarlet Letter to assuage puritan fears over writing and reading about sin in a fictional way. Even in the early 20th century, silent film actors such as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Clara Bow fanned the flames of outrage over the morality of the movies with their on- and off-screen behavior. Even during the Italian Renaissance, rogues such as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio seemed to know too much about the underhanded acts going on in works such as his 1594 painting Cardsharps (shown above), in which a young mark on the left is being cheated by an older man peeking over his shoulder and signaling to his young apprentice on the right, who has extra cards tucked into his belt as well as a dagger just in case they’re found out. Rumors that Caravaggio used beautiful prostitutes to pose as the Madonnas for his church commissions swirled about even before the artist ran into the legal problems created by his quick temper and quicker reflex to reach for his sword. The list of bad boy and bad girl artists stretches well into our century and will undoubtedly continue well into the future.
But is this connection between creativity and confidence men a totally bad thing? Gino and Wiltermuth freely admit from their business world perspective that “[t]here is little doubt that dishonesty creates costs for society”and that “[i] t is less clear whether it produces any positive consequences.” However, if, as they suggest, “people may become more creative after behaving dishonestly because acting dishonestly leaves them feeling less constrained by rules,” perhaps there’s a way of channeling that rebellious impulse into more constructive than destructive ways. Maybe our “Bernie Madoff—Lance Armstrong—insert name of politician here” present full of lies and cheaters is even perverse proof of Gino and Wiltermuth’s findings. “More speculatively,” they write, “our research raises the possibility that one of the reasons why dishonesty is so widespread in today’s society is that by acting dishonestly, people become more creative, which allows them to come up with more creative justifications for their immoral behavior and therefore makes them more likely to behave dishonestly (Gino & Ariely, 2012), which may make them more creative, and so on.” In other words, when people break the rules, it makes them more creative, which then helps them find more creative ways to break more rules.
At its worst, this idea ends with humanity in a creativity-fueled downward spiral into a chaos in which cheaters prosper more and more often because they learn how to prosper even more creatively. At its best, however, this idea offers promise in that, if we can identify the best rule breakers, we can channel their creative energy (and find some creative energy for ourselves) by steering them towards art that breaks the rules that keep us apart (sexual, racial, etc.) rather than art that breaks the rules that hold us together.