Creative Cheating: The Link Between Creativity and Dishonesty

Most “honest” people are willing to cheat by “fudging” their results in order to give themselves small gains.

By the time French police arrested him in 1969, Frank Abagnale had posed as a lawyer, doctor, U.S. Bureau of Prisons agent, teaching assistant at Brigham Young University, pilot and, “passed $2.5 million worth of meticulously forged checks across 26 countries.” By any standard, Abagnale - who committed most of his crimes as a teenager - was a criminal. In fact, when he was finally captured, 12 countries wanted him on accounts of fraud.


At that point everybody had questions for Abagnale. How did he get away with all of it for so long? Why didn’t anyone notice his youthful appearance? And how did he manage to escape authorities, even after they captured him?

Abagnale’s unmatched intelligence, willingness to take a chance and charm created a strange cognitive brew that gave rise to his unusual accomplishments – if that’s the appropriate word. But he was also highly creative. He didn’t just steal and forge; he stole and forged in entirely novel ways. In this light - a somewhat pessimistic light – he was a creative genius.

Was Abagnale a cheater because of his crafty creativity? Consider a study published last year recently brought to the popular audience with the publication of Dan Ariely’s latest book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Ariely conducted five experiments for the study. In one, after measuring how creative each participant was, Ariely and his research partner Francesca Gino facilitated a multiple-choice test with cash rewards that depended on performance - the better people did the more money they made.

Here’s where things got tricky. Ariely and Gino gave the participants bubble sheets (think the SAT) with instructions to transfer their answers onto it. However, because of a “copyright error,” the bubble sheets already had the correct answers marked in. The error, of course, was a ruse. Ariely and Gino implemented this small ripple to give the participants a chance to cheat without getting caught. The question is: Would they?

The researchers found two things. The first is that many people cheated but only a little bit. This finding is consistent with Ariely’s thesis, which describes how most “honest” people are willing to cheat by “fudging” their results in order to give themselves small gains. Ariely demonstrates this with numerous studies and anecdotes throughout his book. By the end he concludes that cheating is a widespread phenomenon not just limited to a few bad apples.  

The second finding confirmed Ariely’s and Gino’s hunch: creative people cheated more. “Those who cheated more on each of the… tasks had on average higher creativity scores compared to noncheaters, but their intelligence scores were not very different.” Why? Ariely thinks it has to do with storytelling. That is, creative types told themselves more convincing and justifying stories:

 [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.

What’s also interesting is the relationship between pathological liars and gray and white matter. Gray matter is a term that describes the neurons that power our thinking. White matter, in contrast, is the wiring that connects our brain. A study led by Yaling Yang found that – and this is the interesting part – pathological liars had 14 percent less gray matter in their prefrontal cortices, a part of the brain that helps us distinguish right form wrong. One interpretation of this finding is that pathological liars have a difficult time when it comes to moral dilemmas because of their lack of gray matter.

However, Yang and her team also found that the pathological liars had 22 to 26 percent more white matter in their prefrontal areas compared to a control group. In Ariely’s words, this means that “pathological liars are likely able to make more connections between different memories and ideas, and this increased connectivity and access to the world of associations stored in the their gray matter might be the secret ingredient that makes them natural liars.”

Ariely speculates the implications:

If we extrapolate these findings to the general population, we might say that higher brain connectivity could make it easier for any of us to lie and at the same time think of ourselves as honorable creatures. After all, more connected brains have more avenues to explore when it comes to interpreting and explaining dubious events – and perhaps this is a crucial element in the rationalization of our dishonest acts.

This doesn’t mean that the more creative you are the more of a cheater you are – correlation doesn’t equal causation. But Ariely does rightly point out that cheating requires a creative mindset. Such was the case with Abagnale. He didn’t cheat because of his creativity, but his novel brand of thievery couldn’t have been possible without his wildly creative mind. After all, “facts are for people who lack imagination to create their own truth.” Abagnale would agree. 

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.