Do creative people find it harder to behave morally?

Ke Michael Mai answers

Employee creativity represents an important resource leveraged by organizations to achieve competitive advantage within an industry. Prominent organizations such as Apple, Google, and Facebook rely on the ideas of their employees in order to achieve success. Pixar, the leading technological pioneer in the field of computer animation, regularly accepts creative scripts and novel movie ideas from its employees when designing animated films. Additionally, many organizations seek to hire the most creative employees and foster a climate of innovation. Arguably, it is clear that creativity is a critical factor to individuals and organizations. However, selecting employees who possess a highly creative personality may have some unintended consequences in certain organizations.

Research has shown that creative individuals could perform more unethically. But do creative people always find it harder to behave ethically? To answer this question, we conducted three experiments sampling from both students and working adults. We found that creative personality can indeed encourage unethical behavior, but this effect is much stronger when creative personality is activated by performing tasks at hand that require creativity. When creative personality is activated, creative individuals are much more capable of coming up with justifications for why it is fine for them to engage in those ethically questionable actions, and that ultimately increases the chances that they will actually behave unethically.

However, we also note that the penalties and consequences associated with unethical behavior in real-world settings, where people's livelihoods are at stake, are apparently different from the lab setting. In real life, individuals typically need to carefully weigh the consequences of their actions. The characteristics of creative people may heighten those consequences as they may have the potential to more acutely foresee the relationship between their behavior and negative outcomes (e.g., harm to others; likelihood of getting caught), thereby reducing the propensity to engage in unethical behavior. This is also an issue that bears investigation in our future research.

Ke Michael Mai is an assistant professor in the SKK Graduate School of Business at the Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea.