Harvard Business School
Creativity in unethical behavior attenuates condemnation and breeds social contagion when transgressions seem to create little harm
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.