Admittedly, the headline is bit of a fib. But hear me out: Several years ago, marketing guru Seth Godin made waves with his seminal tome All Marketers are Liars, which quickly became required reading at many a creative agency. The title, designed to provoke, raised both eyebrows (and sales) as it explored how successful marketers tell us a story “we want to believe, whether it’s factual or not.” According to factual research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, creative types have a new kink their story — a documented propensity for greater dishonesty.
Penned by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University and the author of The Upside of Irrationality, the report proposes “that a creative personality and a creative mindset promote individuals’ ability to justify their behavior, which, in turn, leads to unethical behavior,” or so reads the abstract of their findings, The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest.
Join the Dark Side
Ariely and Gino conducted five studies that revealed that creative personalities were more prone to cheat more than less creative people. Moreover, they observed that creatives are better able at justifying their dishonest behavior, which, in turn, creates something of a “virtuous circle” but without all that pesky virtuousness.
“The results provide evidence for an association between creativity and dishonesty, thus highlighting a dark side of creativity,” the abstract continues.
As Bloomberg Businessweek writer Caroline Winter observed in her article on Gino and Ariely’s work:
This isn’t to say that graphic designers are necessarily more dishonest than, say, accountants. Creative types are simply “at a higher risk for behaving unethically because they can more easily find reasons why their behavior is not problematic,” says Gino. In other words, original thinkers aren’t more ethically depraved than the rest of us; they’re just better equipped to find ways of being dishonest without compromising their own self-regard.
How to Use Dishonesty Creatively
At first glance, all of this “dishonesty” business may seem specious twaddle to those in or pursuing creative lives. But hear me out — this is how to use your native creative disposition toward dishonesty for the greater good (and possibly some evil):
1. You Can Rationalize Anything
Though your relationship with reality is, to invoke the parlance of Facebook, “complicated,” there’s nothing ethically wrong with lying to oneself. According to psychologist Joanna Starek, “I do think that a little bit of deception is not necessarily a bad thing.” Starek was interviewed in a Radio Lab segment about the performance-enhancing power of self-deception (embedded above, around the 8-minute mark).
An athlete herself, Starek conducted an experiment in which competitive swimmers were asked intentionally embarrassing questions meant to evoke cognitive dissonance (“Do you enjoy your bowel movements?” “Have you ever doubted your sexual adequacy?”) and found that the swimmers who consistently answered “No!” outperformed those who were brutally honest with themselves and their interviewers.
To wit, given your creative proclivity for lying, you possess the innate ability to deceive yourself into believing that your creative notion to, say, write a novel, record an album, direct a movie, isn’t actually harebrained but rather your road to unimaginable success — despite the crushing odds against you. If you can convince yourself, you may just convince others.
“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
2. Manifest a Reality Distortion Field
The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.? Friedrich Nietzsche
Apple’s late Steve Jobs was famous for his “reality distortion field,” his uncanny ability, as Steve Kroft put it on 60 Minutes, to “[Use] his indomitable will and charisma to bend any fact to suit his purpose.” The phenomenon even has its own Wikipedia listing:
While RDF has been criticized as anti-reality, those close to Jobs have also illustrated numerous instances in which creating the sense that the seemingly impossible was possible led to the impossible being accomplished (thereby proving that it had not been impossible after all).
You can’t deny that Jobs was a volatile concentration of pure creative energy. Are you so different? Well, sure, you’re not dead (yet) but as a creative, you also have the ability to imagine forms contrary to reality then make them true. Sometimes reality just needs a little white lie to get on board.
Fake It ’til You Make It
Ours is a culture that defines us by “what we do” as opposed to “who we are.” To the creative, one’s aspiration is as much “who we are” as “what” we are a nuance lost on a lot of people. Hence, it can be hurtful when someone tries to define you simply by your day job. Especially if your day job is borderline criminal like some of mine were.
Fortunately, according to Gino and Ariely, you’re a born liar. Fake it ’til you make it and use your creative dishonesty to fuel a positive perception of yourself in your chosen field. Believe it wholly (see items 1 and 2) and this simple cognitive behavioral change can work wonders.
By saying you’re a writer, rock star or a filmmaker in-the-making is a fine start to actually becoming one. Of course, you have to follow up with the goods (or remain a poseur!). Taking on the trappings of your creative pursuit, however, primes you and your contemporaries to perceive your output (no matter how successful) in a manner that affirms your creative identity. This, in turn, gives the confidence to continue, creating a positive feed loop, until suddenly you’re picking out eveningwear for your awards ceremony.
Writing in Prevention Magazine, Jane Meredith Adams quotes optimism expert (yes, that’s a thing) Suzanne Segerstrom, Ph.D., of the University of Kentucky:
“What’s best about this kind of cognitive behavioral change is that it doesn’t even require much faith,” Segerstrom says. “You don’t have to believe an antibiotic is going to work for it to work.”
Ditto taking on a positive mindset and framing your creative aspirations as an inevitable success story. Is it lying? Meh. As a creative myself, I’m too ethically-challenged to distinguish. Though I will say that making one’s way in a creative life is neither about lying or truthing so much as believing in oneself and inviting others to do the same. It’s worked for me. Would I lie?
“The best lies about me are the ones I told.” Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind