Break the law — with some style — and you may get away with it, for a while

From the C-suite to the White House, ethics and morality are in the headlines these days. The questions are age-old, but new research from the USC Marshall School of Business shows why some rule-breakers may get away with it more than others.

It seems that more creative rule-breakers get in less trouble than more predictable rule-breakers. According to Scott Wiltermuth, associate professor of management and organization at USC Marshall, leniency is often motivated by respect for creativity.

“People view creativity as a positive, valuable trait,” Wiltermuth and his co-authors argue in a recent paper published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. “This perception provides creative cheaters with a halo that simultaneously makes their transgressions more palatable and more socially contagious — particularly when the transgressions appear to cause relatively little harm.”

Tolerating creativity

Take the case of the “hero” Frank Abagnale Jr., in the movie Catch Me If You Can. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio (with whom he shares little resemblance), Abagnale is famous for identity theft, passing himself off as a pilot or doctor, and reaping the benefits of the real person’s bank accounts and other assets. He was busted and served time, but he also became a celebrity and went on to work for the U.S. government, helping nab criminals like himself.

Abagnale arguably caused a lot of harm, but he exemplifies the finding that, “If it’s creative, it’s more tolerated,” Wiltermuth said. And not only that, the researchers found people are more likely to emulate creative forms of unethical behavior.

In one study the researchers conducted in the multiyear project, students working in groups witnessed cheating. In some of the groups, a paid actor cheated in a creative way and suggested that others cheat in the same way. In other groups, the actor’s cheating was less creative, and in other groups the actor neither cheated nor suggested cheating. As the researchers expected, participants who witnessed cheating in a creative manner were more likely to copy it.

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery?

These findings provide insight into the factors that shape moral judgments, providing greater understanding of when people are likely to condemn, tolerate or approve bad behavior. For example, Wiltermuth said knowing creativity can inspire leniency could be useful for members of a jury to know as they find themselves judging the severity of a crime.

“Because transgressions are learned,” said co-author Francesca Gino, Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, “understanding the factors that shape people’s moral judgments of others’ transgressions might also be useful in predicting which types of misdeeds are likely to become socially contagious.”

Wiltermuth and Gino also collaborated with Lynne Vincent, assistant professor of management in the Whitman School at Syracuse University. Their paper, “Creativity in Unethical Behavior Attenuates Condemnation and Breeds Social Contagion When Transgressions Seem to Create Little Harm,” was published in March.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.