Thursday, December 08, 2011

Creativity and Dishonesty

A recent paper by Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely suggests that relatively creative people are more likely to be dishonest than are relatively less creative people because they are better at concocting rationalizations for potential dishonesty. I can't say I'm entirely swooned by Gino & Ariely's methodology, which measures dishonesty by seeing whether people will give wrong answers in psychology laboratory studies when they are paid to give those wrong answers. (If psychologist says: "Roll a die, I'm not going to check the outcome, but I'll pay you $1 if you say it's a 1 and $6 if you say it's a 6", how exactly should the participant react to what's going on here?) I'd rather see more naturalistic observations of behavior in real-life situations, or at least better cover stories. Nor do I think Gino & Ariely do a terrific job of establishing that ability to creatively rationalize is the real mediator of the apparent difference in honesty.

Nonetheless, the conclusion is interesting, the mechanism plausible, and the results at least suggestive. And their picture fits nicely with my favorite hypothesis about the apparent fact that professional ethicists behave no morally better than do socially similar non-ethicists. Philosophical moral reflection, I'm inclined to think, rather than being inert, is bivalent: On the one hand, it highlights the moral dimension of things and can help you appreciate moral truths; but on the other hand, people who are skilled at it will also be skilled at finding superficially plausible rationalizations of attractive misconduct which might then allow them to feel freer to engage in that misconduct (e.g., stealing a library book). Professional ethicists develop their creativity in exactly an area in which being creative brings substantial moral hazards.

11 comments:

L. A. Paul said...

So... metaphysicians are much more likely to be dishonest?

David Daedalus said...

With respect to your comment about professional ethicists acting no more ethically than the rest of us, I'm curious to know by what criteria was the actions of these people judged? Were they judged against the standard of the ethical paradigm they use in the course of executing their professional duties, or by some other criteria?

I'm asking because in the case of the former, given the lack of commonly accepted ethical standard, it doesn't stand to reason that these people are acting unethically, just that they are hypocrites. In the latter, and again in light of the lack of cannon ethical paradigm, how can it be posited of these ethicists that they are unethical when the standard by which they are being judged isn't commonly accepted by even the community of professional ethicists?

Xavier Marquez said...

The point that philosophical reflection on ethics is "bivalent" - is quite interesting, but I wonder if a more "economic" analysis might be helpful. Is just a little moral reflection worse for moral practice than a lot of reflection? Are there increasing or decreasing returns for behavior to moral reflection? Or are there "kinks" - such that a little philosophical training in ethics is worse than either no training or a lot of training?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Laurie: Gino and Ariely characterize creativity at one point as "thinking outside of the box" (a rather in-the-box characterization). And no one is farther out of the box than metaphysicians. Therefore, you're liars! ;-)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ David: I've done it both ways. Particularly relevant to your points is my paper with Josh Rust, "The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors", which compares self-reported normative attitude, self-reported behavior, and directly observed real-world behavior across several issues. Ethicists are no more likely than other professors to self-report or measurably perform consensus-good actions; nor do they show any better correlation than other professors between their expressed attitudes and self-reported or measured behavior.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Xavier: Yes, that's a terrific point. I don't have a lot of data directly pertinent to that question. But I do have some: First, I have some three-way comparisons between ethicists, non-ethicist philosophers, and other professors. It seems plausible that non-ethicist philosophers have more ethics exposure than non-philosophers, so if there were an inverted-U, that might show up in them, but it doesn't. The other data I have are data on charitable giving of small amount of money to two student charities, from students of different majors from University of Zurich. All students decline slightly in charitable giving to those charities over their education, but philosophy majors trend toward declining less. Also, interestingly, of all the non-tiny majors, philosophy students were the most charitable over all -- but from the beginning, not evidently as a result of their education.

L. A. Paul said...

I embrace my liar, liar, pants on fire status!

Roy said...

All of us by those standards are dishonest whenever we practice the acceptable forms of deception, which, in all of our cultures, is virtually all of the time.

Marius Dumitru said...

Hi Eric, this is an interesting post. I have been thinking for some time about the difference between dishonesty and ingenuity, two traits that are, in my opinion, often confounded. Maybe some ingenuity-related behaviors or character traits are mistaken for dishonest ones when there is a lot of indeterminacy that cannot be easily dispelled and when there is pressure to apply a positive/negative label to them. So, metaphysically, the behavior or character trait might belong to ingenuity, but its judgment by others might shift toward the dishonesty end of the spectrum via a negative label which might come from indeterminacy. A further interesting question is about how subjects themselves self-evaluate or self-interpret certain behaviors or character traits. In the first place, they have access to much more information than others, which allows them to have authority on self-evaluation or self-interpretation, especially when it is directed toward their own thoughts, volitions, desires. In some cases, however, this authority is bypassed by others, justifiably or unjustifiably. I think that even in cases of self-evaluation or self-interpretation triangulation is needed, but the subjects who triangulate need to be carefully chosen so as not to fall on the extreme ends of the positive/negative spectrum when labeling. Something that applies for other-evaluation and other-interpretation as well.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thoughts, Marius! I think I would agree with all of that.

Howie Berman said...

A parallel question: are business executives more bossy outside the office, ie with their wives and kids?
Suppose creativity is changed to what somebody does for a living. Are people creative at work creative outside of work? Another way of saying are they creative in other contexts? Or change my first question: are business executives bossy not just for legitimate purposes but for crass and brute self interest?