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Creative Thinking Can Inspire Unethical Behavior

Once you’re thinking imaginatively, it’s easier to come up with justifications for taking ethical shortcuts.
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Jon Hamm as Don Draper on Mad Men. (Photo: AMC)

Jon Hamm as Don Draper on Mad Men. (Photo: AMC)

Confirming the life lessons of Don Draper, recent research has found creative people are more likely to engage in unethical behavior. Now that the time has come to start re-watching the seven seasons of Mad Men, it’ll be interesting to note precisely when the genius ad man’s ethical lapses tend to occur.

Given creator Matthew Weiner’s psychological acuity, don’t be surprised if you find Don has a propensity to flout traditional moral precepts soon after he has given his impressive imagination a workout.

Refining earlier research, a newly published study finds innovative people are indeed more likely than most to cross ethical boundaries—but only after they have been engaged in creative work. According to a research team led by Ke Michael Mai, a creative frame of mind enables one to come up with compelling justifications for bad behavior.

In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Mai and his colleagues describe three experiments that demonstrate that dynamic. In the first, 97 undergraduates at a large American university completed an “adjective checklist” designed to determine whether they had a creative personality.

Having a creative personality “significantly increased unethical behavior,” but only for those students who already had their creative juices flowing.

Half then completed a test in which they were given three words and asked to come up with a fourth that could be linked to any of them—a task that required them to think creatively. The others were asked to create simple words containing certain letters—an activity requiring little creativity.

Afterwards, they were given the correct answers and asked to “self-score” their work. Cheating was a real temptation, since the better they did, the more extra credit they earned.

The results: Having a creative personality “significantly increased unethical behavior,” but only for those students who already had their creative juices flowing.

The second study featured 178 American undergraduates who completed the same survey measuring one's creative personality. All were then given a set of Lego pieces, but half “were instructed to design a product that could be promoted to consumers,” while the other half assumed the role of product testers.

All then read one of two “morally ambiguous scenarios,” after which they were asked to come up with justifications for taking an ethically questionable route (such as hiring a job candidate who has inside information on a competitor’s technology). Finally, they were given the opportunity to lie to a fictional partner on another ethics test—one in which they would walk away with $15 if they lied, or $5 if they told the truth.

The researchers found participants with creative personalities “were 12 percent more likely than individuals with low creative personality to engage in unethical behavior.” Again, however, this effect was only found among those who had been doing something imaginative.

Similarly, creative people were able to come up with more justifications for making an ethically questionable decision—but only if they had previously been trying to come up with new Lego products. Thinking “outside the box” gave them license to cross ethical lines. A third study, featuring 158 adults recruited online, came to the same conclusion.

In a way, it’s too bad Don Draper lived in an earlier era; this information might have helped him on his quest for self-knowledge. Coming up with a great slogan for Lucky Strikes may not justify cheating on your wife, but this research suggests it’d make such a transgression more likely.

At the very least, it's a dynamic worth discussing over a couple of bottles of ice-cold Coke.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.