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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Finally this hour, why we cheat. Dishonesty, it turns out, is a hot topic in psychology today. Just this week, a new study on dishonesty was published.

NPR's Alix Spiegel reports on research that explores how creativity might increase our willingness to be dishonest by a psychologist who is fascinated by a famous business failure.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: It was five months after the implosion of Enron, February 12, 2002.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Raise your right hand, please.

SPIEGEL: That's when Ken Lay, Enron's chief executive, finally stood up in front of Congress and the world, his hand on a Bible, swearing to tell the truth...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you, God.

KENNETH LAY: I do.

SPIEGEL: Now, at that point, Congress, everyone had questions for Ken Lay. It was clear by then that Enron was the product of a spectacular ethical failure, that there had been all kinds of cheating and lying. The question was, how many people had been dishonest? Who was in on it?

Everyone wanted to know and Lay, after his swearing in, said that he badly wanted to explain things. There was just one problem.

LAY: I have, however, been instructed by my counsel not to testify based on my Fifth Amendment constitutional rights.

SPIEGEL: Now, one of the people following the Enron story was a psychologist from Duke University named Dan Ariely who, like everyone else, wanted to understand who had been unethical and why. But Ariely found himself skeptical, skeptical that Enron could be explained by a handful of bad apples like Lay and Skilling and Fastow.

DAN ARIELY: Is it more that three bad apples who kind of polluted the pool and basically planned to steal and thief and so on or is this something more general?

SPIEGEL: So Ariely decides to research dishonesty. He did a series of studies and quickly discovered that dishonesty was a lot more widespread than he had thought. In the lab, when he gave people the opportunity to cheat, many took him up on it.

ARIELY: More than half the people are cheating in our experiments.

SPIEGEL: But here's the thing. While a small number of those people were big cheaters, most only cheated a little bit.

ARIELY: We find that very, very few of them cheat a lot. But we find that about 50 percent are cheating a little bit.

SPIEGEL: So what was restraining their cheating? Why didn't they cheat more? According to Ariely, when we face an ethical dilemma, say, what to report on our tax forms, all of us are juggling two extremely powerful competing impulses.

ARIELY: In most cases, we basically want to behave dishonestly, but we also want to view ourselves as good, honorable people. So, we're trying to steal as much as we can, while not hurting our own image in our own eyes.

SPIEGEL: Which brings us to the study that Ariely and his collaborator, Francesca Gino, published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Ariely and Gino wondered if certain personality types were more prone to dishonesty than others. And so they decided to look at creative personalities. They figured that creative people might be better at rationalizing their dishonest actions.

ARIELY: It's all about telling stories, so creative people are likely to be able to tell themselves better stories, which would allow them to cheat more on one hand, but not feel worse about it on the other.

SPIEGEL: Now, to test this theory, Gino and Ariely did a series of experiments. In one, after measuring the creativity of about 100 people, they asked those people to take a test.

ARIELY: We give people a multiple choice test. We say, please answer these as best as you can and we'll pay you for each question.

SPIEGEL: So after the questions had been answered, they gave the people one of those bubble sheets that they use in the SAT tests and told them to transfer their answers there. Then they explained that because of a copying error, the bubble sheets already had the correct answers marked.

ARIELY: Now you have a dilemma. Do you answer correctly? Do you transfer it B to B, or do you cheat, change your answer and write, C. Oh, yes. I knew it was C all along kind of a thing.

SPIEGEL: And the results of this experiment were clear.

ARIELY: Basically, the people who were more creative cheat to a higher degree.

SPIEGEL: Gino and Ariely did five different experiments in all. And in every one, creativity was clearly correlated with increased dishonesty. And though they are not yet fully able to demonstrate it, both Gino and Ariely feel like creativity increased dishonesty simply because creative people were able to genuinely see credible rationalizations where others could not.

ARIELY: If you're a creative person, all of a sudden, you can go through the same amount of evidence and find many more links to justify the position you want to have to start with.

SPIEGEL: But psychologist David Dunning of Cornell cautions this study might overemphasize the role of creativity in dishonesty. He points out that psychology has struggled for years to determine whether honesty is a function of a person's character or a function of the situations that people find themselves in. And while he says that both are important, we often underestimate just how much situations influence what we do.

DAVID DUNNING: In some situations, we're moral. In other situations, we're not so moral. And really what it is is the situation pulling out this ability in all of us to either be ethical or to be unethical.

SPIEGEL: Alix Speigel, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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