Creativity in Unethical Behavior Attenuates Condemnation and Breeds Social Contagion When Transgressions Seem to Create Little Harm

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Author Information : Scott S. Wiltermuth (University of Southern California)
Lynne C. Vincent (Syracuse University)
Francesca Gino (Harvard University)

Year of Publication : Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (2017)

Summary of Findings : People judged creative forms of unethical behavior to be less unethical than less creative forms of unethical behavior, particularly when the unethical behaviors imposed relatively little direct harm on victims.

Research Questions : 1. Do people judge creative forms of unethical behavior as less unethical noncreative forms?

2. Are the effects strongest when crimes seem to impose little harm?

3. Do people punish creative unethical behavior less severely than noncreative forms?

4. Are people more likely to emulate creative forms of unethical behavior?

5. Can competence in committing the unethical act color morality judgments of the act?

What we know : Morality judgments may not be consistent, and how we judge behaviors affects how we react to those behaviors. We currently do not fully understand why people judge others lightly or harshly for their misdeeds or why people decide to emulate unethical behavior.

Novel Findings : This research demonstrates that not all forms of dishonesty are judged similarly even if the consequences for the misdeeds are the same. When dishonest behaviors were judged as creative, people perceived them as being less unethical and suggested less severe punishments. More importantly, people were more likely to engage in the creative dishonest behavior themselves. It challenges the idea of morality judgments as black and white, right and wrong. We seem to like certain dishonest behaviors more. For instance, we like the Ocean's Eleven-style heists but frown upon the smash-and-grab jewelry heists. This paper is the first to show that the skill or competency of the misdeed can affect the perception of the immorality of the behavior.

Full Citations : Wiltermuth, S. S., Vincent, L. C., & Gino, F. (2017). Creativity in unethical behavior attenuates condemnation and breeds social contagion when transgressions seem to create little harm. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 139, 106-126.

Abstract : Across six studies, people judged creative forms of unethical behavior to be less unethical than less creative forms of unethical behavior, particularly when the unethical behaviors imposed relatively little direct harm on victims. As a result of perceiving behaviors to be less unethical, people punished highly creative forms of unethical behavior less severely than they punished less-creative forms of unethical behavior. They were also more likely to emulate the behavior themselves. The findings contribute to theory by showing that perceptions of competence can positively color morality judgments, even when the competence displayed stems from committing an unethical act. The findings are the first to show that people are judged as morally better for performing bad deeds well as compared to performing bad deeds poorly. Moreover, the results illuminate how the characteristics of an unethical behavior can interact to influence the emulation and diffusion of that behavior.

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Management research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes finds people judged creative forms of unethical behavior to be less unethical than less creative forms of unethical behavior, particularly when the unethical behaviors imposed relatively little direct harm on victims.

Lynne Vincent

Lynne Vincent

Vincent's research examines the moral and social implications of creativity. In contrast to the status quo view of creativity as inherently positive, she investigates the potential dark side and the unexpected consequences of creativity. Her research reveals that creativity and the perception of creativity influences decisions to engage in dishonest behaviors, how people handle negative experiences and even how people judge others. These processes affect how organizations encourage creativity, how organizations design jobs and how hiring decisions are made. Her research has appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and Psychological Science.
Lynne Vincent
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