Friday, March 14, 2014

The Link Between Creativity and Dishonesty

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

An article in Scientific American, based on research studies, concluded that "Encouraging people to think outside the box can result in greater cheating and crossing ethical boundaries can make people more creative in a subsequent task." This caught my eye because I think of myself as a creative person. A few days earlier, I read the post “18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently” and checked yes on almost everything. So does that also make me inherently dishonest?

I don't think so, but since I write crime fiction, I had to scrutinize whether the theory applied to me.

Overall, I tend to be painfully honest. Law-abiding. Responsible. And sober. All the time! But when I was younger, I was bit more wild. So now, maybe adhering to the straight and narrow in my real life (while suppressing my wild side) leads me to enjoy writing from the perspective of a character who is the opposite. Namely, Agent Jamie Dallas.

I’m currently working on my second book in this series—featuring an undercover agent who infiltrates groups to gather evidence and break open crime rings—and it’s as fun as the first time. (Here’s a link to the cover and description.)

This young character (also something I’m not anymore) has to lie, cheat, steal files, seduce targets, party with her new peers to be accepted, sneak into places she isn’t supposed to, and put on performances to accomplish her goals. All of it is for the sake and safety of her country—but Dallas loves her work in a special way. Once I got inside her head and wrote her part the first time, I had so much fun, I knew she had to have her own series.

So maybe there’s a bit of Dallas buried inside me that needs to get out and play sometimes. Or maybe that’s why I write crime fiction. Because creativity is linked to deviant behavior, so that’s the only kind of story I know how to tell.

What do you think? Does our creativity lead to deviant behavior or does unethical activity lead to creativity? Or is the research on this subject inherently flawed?


  1. I think that research is flawed. I suppose I'd like to see the article, to see exactly what they were doing to come up with those findings. I'm more the Walter Mitty type - my daydreams take me to incredible places, but my life is mostly that of a regular gal. Mostly. The only nod I'll give to that study is that, under the right circumstances, I have an impish side. I can not only tell lies, but I actually enjoy leading people astray.

    1. I linked to the article. They conducted studies in which they gave people opportunities to cheat, then measured their creativity afterward. People who cheated were more creative. And vice versa.

    2. Just read it. Interesting stuff, especially the part about people being more creative in a messy space. I always feel like there's too much external stimulation in chaos - I can't let my imagination roam.

    3. That's how I feel. I need my space to be uncluttered or I'm distracted by it.

  2. The researcher must not have read any books or had any fun. Creative thinking expands my imagination and has opened my mind to see things from someone else's perspective. The books you and many of your peers write cover subjects that are real and give me a chance to see how a fictional character might try to correct a wrong. There is nothing better that having my favorite law enforcement man or women solve a crime and bring the villain to justice. These stories are fiction and are meant to open my eyes to the potential that injustices exist, but there are people in real life fighting for us. .

  3. I absolutely love Agent Jamie Dallas, LJ, and was thrilled to edit your first book starring her! And was so sorry my life is too crazy right now to edit the second one! But I can't wait to read it! Yes, she pushes the boundaries, but it's what makes her interesting! I love that she's gutsy and does things that would make the rest of us hesitate. She gets into hot water but always manages to finesse her way out!

  4. This hurt my head this morning when I read it. I was ready to think about arsonists and snow-balling coverups and revenge-seekers. I wasn't ready to think about anything actually real.

    After a full day of mulling, here's what I think: the study is flawed. While crime might be creative (there have certainly been a lot of fraudulent crime perpetrated that I have a hard time following even when it's spelled out for me), creative people who have a good sense of right and wrong, aren't likely to wind up behind bars.

    I love risk takers. I enjoy deviant behavior that exists to bring down the bad guys. Especially when it comes from a woman. Exactly why I like Dallas. But if the lines were ever really blurred for her, she and I would have to sit down and have a chat.

    And just so you know, there's no way on earth I could work in clutter. It would make the inside of my elbows itch. But I've also learned that clutter is relative.

    Excellent, thought-provoking post!

  5. Gaaahhhh! (that's me screaming by the way ;) ) Research studies and scientific publications. Don't trust them. Don't trust ANY of them.

    Okay, so I exaggerate slightly :)

    I have a bit of a bugbear with studies and attention grabbing titles like the one featured in that publication. If I had a penny for the number of times a patient has approached me with flawed "research evidence" that supports their viewpoint, I'd be, well, rich ;)

    We learn critical appraisal of research papers as part of our medical education. It tells us how to look objectively at aims and objectives, research bias, methodology, statistical analysis, and conclusions of papers that we read without taking the researchers' word for it, i.e., we're taught never trust what they say to be true.

    I don't think the p-value of the results of this study reaches statistical significance, i.e, the strength of their evidence supporting a relationship between dishonesty and creativity is not of a level that will be accepted by the wider scientific community. Not every research paper can be perfect or always produce a "positive" result. Nobody wants to publish something that says "Well, we tested out this hypothesis and, er, it turns out we were wrong. Sorry." However, well analyzed papers, even if they don't prove the researchers' theories and are deemed to have produced "negative" results, add to the overall knowledge on the subject.

    Are criminals/dishonest people creative? Yes, I believe the successful ones can be very creative to get away with what they do. But does that automatically mean creative people are inherently dishonest and have within them the capacity to become a criminal? No. They're just a hell of a lot more imaginative.

    1. LF - As you note in your title "link" reported between dishonesty and creativity. The association is nebulous but fun to bat around.

      AD -
      With you 100% regarding skepticism toward reported "studies".
      The most common and significant unsupported leap imo is from the finding of an association (X is statistically linked to Y) into an assumption/suggestion/statement of causation (X causes Y).

      An absurd example (all fiction but please allow for illustration of errant basis of some reports):
      Studies show pre-marital sex has increased significantly in the US over the past one hundred years. Studies also show that the amount of greenhouse gases generated by the US have similarly increased over the past 100 years.

      The data show a correlation/association of premarital sex to greenhouse gas production (i.e. both have risen over the same period - concordant data linkage).
      A study of green house gases and premarital sex will show the statistical link. Unfortunately some will suggest (the researchers themselves can be guilty of this) that the study 'shows' that premarital sex "causes" increased greenhouse gases. This ends up a headline. Obviously the statistical data does not "prove' causality.
      Much more rigorous testing/research would be required to reveal if a statistical link/association might be a causal relationship.

      okay - done babbling and back to revision. I never spend too much time on fun blogs when I should be working! ...trying a little dishonesty to fuel a creative burst :-)
      Thanks LJ

    2. Tom, we need to write the "premarital sex increases greenhouse gases" paper! ;)

    3. ha-ha! Perhaps we can get government funding? You work your side of the pond and I'll work mine.

      LJ - apologies for detouring into silliness.
      Your post has me thinking of Bernie Madoff and his ilk - they come up with some very 'creative' schemes.


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