Con artists rarely inspire admiration. Frank Abagnale Jr., however, was hardly a typical con artist. Cunning and charismatic, Abagnale forged checks, diplomas, and transcripts en route to assuming at least eight identities and posing as a pilot, a lawyer, and a doctor—all before his nineteenth birthday. Although he eventually was caught and sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison for his cons, he served less than five years before the U.S. government recruited him to fight the very types of crimes that he had perpetrated so successfully himself. He also became the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me If You Can.
Abagnale’s crimes were dangerous and harmful. When he forged checks, he had to convince the teller to break every rule in the bank to cash the check, thus putting the teller’s job in danger. And though he did not fly a plane when he dressed up like a pilot, he flew for free to many locations and charged hotel expenses back to the airline. Despite the harm Abagnale’s behavior created, we think about it differently from other crimes. To our eyes, his behaviors are not as morally problematic because they were creative. Their undeniable creativity garnered him respect rather than moral outrage.
As it turns out, we all have a tendency to view unethical behavior as less dishonest when it also is creative, as I found in recent research I conducted in collaboration with Scott Wiltermuth (of the University of Southern California) and Lynne Vincent (of the University of Syracuse). We are much harsher on people who rob banks than on people who achieve the same objective but through creative methods like those employed by Abagnale. This is important as it introduces a bias in the way we judge dishonesty and punish it, thus reducing the likelihood of seeing more of the same behavior in the future. But there is another reason why our research is potentially interesting: creative forms of unethical behavior are more likely to be imitated than other forms of unethical behavior because people admire the behavior’s creativity, we discovered. It seems that people view creativity as a positive, valuable trait that provides creative cheaters with a halo that makes their transgressions more palatable and more socially contagious.
In one of our studies, we collected data from 247 master’s degree students at a U.S. law school. The students read a short scenario describing a dishonest behavior that was either creative (creativity condition) or less creative (control condition) and then rated the perpetrator on a series of attributes. In both conditions, the victim of the transgression was a large retail store that presumably would be harmed, but not greatly, by a single theft of $50. In the control condition, students read, “Pat works as a cashier at a large retail store. One day, a customer purchases $50 worth of merchandise and pays with cash. After the customer leaves, Pat opens the cash register and takes the $50 bill. As several cashiers use that register during the day, Pat’s theft will not be connected directly to Pat.” In the creative condition, students read, “Pat works as a cashier at a large retail store. One day, a customer purchases $50 worth of merchandise and pays with cash. After the customer leaves, Pat processes a fake return for the merchandise and takes the $50 bill. As cashiers process multiple returns during the day, Pat's theft will not be connected directly to Pat.”
The result? The students who participated in the study punished Pat less severely for the creative transgression than for the less creative transgression because they viewed the creative transgression as less unethical. Based on this result and others from follow-up studies we conducted, we conclude that there may be instances in which people facing fines or punishments for their transgressions would try to highlight their creativity when defending their actions. Transgressors who do so, however, risk giving the impression that they are proud and unremorseful about their acts—an impression that generally increases the severity of punishment.
People not only judge others less harshly for creative (as compared to less creative) transgressions; they judge themselves more leniently for creative transgressions as well. In one study, for instance, we asked participants to recall a time in their lives when they either “broke or bypassed rules” or “creatively broke or bypassed rules.” They were more forgiving of their rule-breaking behavior when it was creative.
Interestingly, though people judge creative dishonest acts as less morally problematic than less creative ones, people do not agree in principle that creativity make a transgression less unethical, we find. A disconnect therefore exists between people’s abstract beliefs and their judgments of specific creative transgressions.
We also found that unethical behaviors spread more or less quickly within a group depending on how creative those behaviors are. In earlier work I conducted with Dan Ariely (of Duke University) and Shahar Ayal (of IDC in Israel), we demonstrated that unethical behavior is contagious when it is seen as normative and legitimate, and when it is not explicitly punished or disapproved. In my work with Wiltermuth and Vincent, we took this research a step further and examined whether more creative unethical behavior spread more quickly than less creative behavior. In one of our studies, we asked 216 MBA students from a university in the Southeastern United States to work as a group on a series of trivia questions. In each group, a paid actor suggested and performed a creative method of cheating, a less creative method of cheating, or no method of cheating. We then looked at whether, across these different situations, participants adopted the actor’s behavior. As we expected, participants who witnessed the confederate cheating in a creative manner were more likely to emulate that behavior than were those who witnessed the confederate cheating in a less-creative manner and than those who did not witness the confederate cheating.
So, next time you find yourself smiling at someone who was able to get around the rules in creative ways, make sure you do not lose sight of the fact that he or she may have crossed ethical boundaries. If this was the case, then whether the behavior was creative or not should not affect how you think about the transgression and make decisions on whether to condemn it or not. Without thinking about creative, dishonest acts more thoughtfully, in fact, we may find ourselves copying them.
And we should also keep in mind that, despite the fact that unethical behavior usually results in some benefits in the short term – as in the case of Abagnale’s free flights and hotel stays, it generally involves bigger costs in the long term, no matter how creative the behavior was. After spending many years in prison, Abagnale struggled to find legitimate work. In the end, he turned his skill into a consulting career, advising banks and businesses on how to avoid fraud, and he became a millionaire by legitimate means. But when he looks back, he is the first to say that he is not proud of the actions that led to years of prison and regrets the time he ended up spending behind bars. There are more productive ways to use one’s creativity than in trying to get around rules.