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Binge-watching House of Cards, cheating, and creativity

Wednesday, March 5, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

House-of-CardsI did not intend to binge watch the newly-released second season of House of Cards. But once I saw the first episode, I could not stop and watched the entire season over the next 4 days. As a fellow fan, I understood Barack Obama’s tweet about the show


and thus, you will find no spoilers here. Suffice to say, the first episode destroyed any ability I had to wait and allow the story to slowly unfold. So when I saw the Atlantic’s recent story on “ruthless winners” featuring the example of Claire Underwood on House of Cards–I had to go read it (although you should not if you have not yet watched all of Season 2!). Essentially, the Atlantic piece asks why we root for the ruthless pragmatist–from Frank and Claire Underwood to Walter White in Breaking Bad to Tony Soprano in the Soprano’s. It’s a worthwhile question for us to consider. I find myself both shocked and intrigued as I watch these shows. It’s a phenomena we’ve written about before here. They are so evil and dishonest and yet, so creative in their machinations. They are evil geniuses–and now we may know why.

Harvard researcher Francesca Gino has published a new paper on the link between dishonesty and creativity. She says, “by acting dishonestly, people become more creative, which allows them to come up with more creative justifications for their immoral behavior, and therefore more likely to behave dishonestly”.

Gino recruited 153 people online and asked them to “quickly scan a series of numbers to find combinations that added up to ten”. They knew that if they were randomly selected for a bonus, they would receive $1 for every combination they found (they were self-reporting their solutions). After that they were asked to do the Remote Association Task (which measures creative thinking). In this study, 59% of the participants “over-stated” the number of problems solved on the number test. (Another way to communicate the participants over-stated their results would be to come right out and say they lied.) But, the liars performed better on the creative thinking test.

Next, Gino tried a similar experiment with 101 college students. In this experiment, 51 of the 53 participants with the opportunity to lie, lied. And yes, they performed better on the creative thinking test than did their peers who had no opportunity to lie or cheat. It was as though dishonesty was favored by participants inclined to “feel unconstrained by rules” and that freed them up to think more creatively.

Getting back to Frank and Claire Underwood, they have certainly had a lot of practice behaving dishonestly, feeling “unconstrained by the rules” and thus thinking of creative strategies to manipulate others. We’ve blogged before about a study concluding that creative people make us anxious and uncertain. Perhaps this study can explain why… we simply don’t trust them!

It’s also a good thing to consider if your client is a creative type– an artist, inventor, software writer, poet, actor, etc. Present testimony showing their good works, honest treatment of others, and overall good character. Your creative client needs to defy any “evil genius” characterization. Make sure jurors know that.

Gino F, & Wiltermuth SS (2014). Evil Genius? How Dishonesty Can Lead to Greater Creativity. Psychological Science PMID: 24549296


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