Liars and Cheaters Make Better Art

A Harvard study explains why so many artists are such assholes.

Image: jepoirrier/Flickr

Plenty of the world’s best artists haven’t exactly been stellar people, morally speaking. We pay comedians, novelists, and screenwriters to make stuff up and in exchange, forgive them their transgressions. Turns out, there may be a connection: A new study out of Harvard University suggests that lying actually makes you more creative.

Previous studies have found that creative people are generally more dishonest than uncreative people, but the Harvard study, published in Psychological Science, suggests that people who lie or cheat immediately before doing a creative task perform better at it.

“Given that both dishonesty and creativity involve rule breaking, the individuals most likely to behave dishonestly and the individuals most likely to be creative may be one and the same,” Francesca Gino, lead author of the study, wrote. 

To test the theory of whether creative people are simply more likely to lie or whether lying actually spurs creativity, Gino devised five experiments. In one of them, participants were given a score for their “baseline creativity.” They were given the Duncker candle problem, in which people are given a photo of a cardboard wall, a candle, a pack of matches, and a box of tacks. They were asked “to figure out, using only the objects on the table, how to attach the candle to the wall so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the table or the floor,” a good measure of creativity because it “requires people to see objects as capable of performing atypical functions.” To solve that, you’ve got to tack the tack box to the wall and use it as a candle holder. 

From there, participants were asked to solve a series of math problems, then asked to self-report their score, allowing them to lie. Afterwards, they played a word-association game that assessed creativity. Those who lied on the second task scored much higher on the third task, even when controlling for differences in initial creativity. Further experiments continually showed that, after lying, people performed better on creativity assessments. 

The experiments “demonstrate that people may become more creative after behaving dishonestly because acting dishonestly leaves them feeling less constrained by the rules,” Gino suggests. 

She also considers the possibility that the whole thing is one giant self-replicating loop, a claim that’s definitely going to need much more research, but makes a bit of sense if you believe that a creative lie is the best one.

“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,” she wrote. That “allows them to come up with more creative justifications for their immoral behavior and therefore [they are] more likely to behave dishonestly, which may make them more creative, and so on.”

So next time you get caught in a lie, just say you were trying to color outside the lines. Then, when you get called out, come up with a more creative excuse.