Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought

- Albert Einstein

No wonder then that creativity as a skill, and those skilled in it, are highly coveted. Defined as the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful, creativity’s desirability possibly outstrips that of any other trait, except perhaps intelligence.

A World Economic Forum report titled “Future of Jobs", released earlier this year, asked chief human resource and strategy officers from leading global organizations across the world to identify the top skills needed to thrive in the work environment of 2020. While there aren’t big changes vis-à-vis the list curated in 2015, one particular skill has skyrocketed from #10 in 2015 to #3 in 2020. No points for guessing which one.

The report argues that by 2020, the Fourth Industrial Revolution would have created a world of “advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, disrupting and transforming the way we live and work". To flourish in a competitive world where the mundane is taken over by machines, creativity will become a must-have. That creativity is elusive, coveted, and capricious isn’t exactly news. As I have discovered, telling someone they are “creative" is the best compliment ever, and, in my small sample, has never failed to light up the recipient’s face.

But everything good, arguably, comes at a cost. As amazing as being creative is, it harbours a dark side that seldom gets mentioned in a world enchanted with its magic. No, we are not discussing the extant evidence that has linked artistic creativity to depression and other emotional disorders.

What we are talking about are the subtle, incidental effects of feeling creative, the kind of creativity that is not the exclusive domain of writers, artists and musicians. This is about the “rushed dad" feeling creative, having re-purposed Vaseline to polish his son’s school shoes or a woman feeling pleased getting a stuck zipper moving again by running a bar soap over it.

When creativity knows no (moral) bounds

Given the benefits human creativity accrues to individuals, organizations and societies, ways to foster creativity have interested scholars across disciplines for decades. What has received less attention is how creativity influences behaviour in unintended, indirect ways.

Fascinating research by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely shows that thinking creatively is more likely to lead to dishonest behaviour. In other words, when faced with ethical dilemmas or the “grey zone", creative people are more likely to behave unethically.

The reason behind this intriguing finding is both simple and intuitive. Thinking creatively, or “outside the box", leads individuals to restructure information and knowledge in several different ways, thus blurring the boundaries of right and wrong.

For a real world test of their hypothesis, the researchers collected data from employees in an advertising agency in America. The responses were anonymous and individual respondents could not be identified. The participants first responded to a series of questions on their likelihood to engage in ethically questionable behaviour at work (example, “Take home office supplies from work", or “Inflate your business expense report").

Finally, participants rated the amount of creativity required on their job. Interestingly, the more the amount of creativity required on their job, the more likely they were to indulge in dishonest behaviour.

Now, one may argue that this relationship between creativity and dishonesty holds only for the creative “type" working in advertising agencies. A follow up study showed that anyone can be put in a creative mindset and, as a result, become more likely to cheat for personal gain.

For this study, the researchers randomly assigned participants (college students) either to a creativity condition or a control condition. In the creativity condition, the researchers activated a creative mindset by asking participants to unscramble sentences with the words creativity, originality, novelty, innovative etc. in them. Participants in the control condition unscrambled an equal number of sentences but without any mention of creativity or other related words.

To check if unscrambling sentences with creativity-related words had indeed put participants in a creative thinking mindset, both sets of participants were tasked to solve Duncker’s Candle Test. Requiring insight and imagination, the candle test is a classic measure of creative thinking.

Surprisingly, participants who had unscrambled sentences with creativity related works were more likely to figure out the ingenious way to solve the Candle Test—thus demonstrating that it is indeed possible to temporarily put people in a creative mindset.

More interestingly, all participants were then given a chance to earn money by participating in a visual judgement task. This task was designed such that half the trials were straightforward, and the other half were ambiguous. Strikingly similar to the advertising agency employees above, participants in the creative mindset were more likely to behave unethically in the ambiguous trials to maximize their earnings. Even when the judgment was clearly inconclusive, those in the creative mindset were more likely to skew it so that they could earn more money.

Essentially, being creative, or the ability to think flexibly in many directions, blurs the thin line between honesty and dishonesty in ambiguous situations. But surely, creative people, being the rare breed they are, are perhaps more deserving of the better things in life? Yes indeed, while moral flexibility is one reason underlying this unethical behaviour, the feeling of entitlement is another.

Of course, I am special

It is age-old wisdom that, to be creative, one must defy convention and shun conformity. To be creative, is to be rare, unique and one-of-a-kind. Not surprisingly, by contributing original and novel ideas, creative individuals feel they deserve special, preferential treatment.

This sense of entitlement brings with it its own set of negative consequences, including cheating. Interestingly, this sense of entitlement was found to be unique to creativity and not generalizable to other valued traits, such as intelligence (perhaps thought to be more “abundant" than creativity).

The relationship between creativity and entitlement is so strong and special that it works in the opposite direction too. In an interesting twist, making people feel entitled had the most compelling fall out of making them more creative.

In a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers evoked a feeling of entitlement among the participants by asking them to write three reasons each for “Why they should demand the best in life, why they deserve more than others, and why they should get their own way in life".

Participants in the non-entitled condition wrote why they should not demand the best in life and so on. Afterwards, in an unrelated task, all participants were asked to list different ways to use a paperclip (example, as a hair clip, as an ear ring).

To measure creativity, participants’ responses were rated on unusualness or novelty. The results revealed that participants made to feel entitled did not just generate more number of uses for the paperclip, they also generated more original, unusual ideas.

In a testimony to the unique relationship between creativity and entitlement, intelligence (unlike creativity) was not influenced by feelings of entitlement. In other words, unlike the creativity task, participants did not perform better on an intelligence-based task from the GRE after being made to feel entitled.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution unravels and machines take over the routine, the world will need creative people more than ever. In the words of philosopher Elliot Samuel Paul, “Creativity is the engine of progress in every human endeavour".

But with great power comes great responsibility—responsibility to not let the lines of morality get blurred in the quest for a better future.

Shilpa Madan is a marketer-turned-consumer psychologist. Her research interests lie at the intersection of cultural beliefs and consumption choices. Having worked with Unilever in sales and marketing in her past life, she now aspires to bridge the academia–business chasm through Serein Insights, an endeavor to de-mystify and leverage academic research for solving diverse problems for businesses and brands. She tweets at @Shilpa_Madan

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