USC Marshall Research Finds Creative Criminals May Not Be Punished

USC Marshall Crime Research

Research from the USC Marshall School of Business may give new insight into the nuances of how people make moral judgments. The research from Scott Wiltermuth, Associate Professor of Management and Organization found that people are more likely to receive leniency if they break the rules in an original and clever way. Researchers believe that more lenient moral judgments and punishments are prompted by a respect for ingenuity.

In Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Wiltermuth writes, “People view creativity as a positive, valuable trait … This perception provides creative cheaters with a halo that simultaneously makes their transferssions more palatable and more socially contagious—particularly when the transgressions appear to cause relatively little harm.”

Wiltermuth also published a paper with Francesca Gino and Lynne Vincent entitled, “Creativity in Unethical Behavior Attenuates Condemnation and Breeds Social Contagion When Transgressions Seem to Create Little Harm.”

One of the studies involved students who were working in groups witnessing someone in the group cheating. An actor was paid in certain groups to cheat in a creative way and to suggest that others follow suit. In other groups, the actors cheated in conventional ways. The study also included control groups in which no one cheated. This study was conducted over multiple years, and showed that those in the groups with the person who cheated in an original way were more likely to cheat in that way themselves.

Wiltermuth suggested these findings could be important in situations like trials. Juries may be more likely to make an unbiased decision regarding guilt once they understand that they may be swayed toward leniency by a criminal’s creativity.

Wiltermuth and Gino, a Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, explained that, “Because transgressions are learned, understanding the factors that shape people’s moral judgments of others’ transgressions might also be useful in predicting which type of misdeeds are likely to become socially contagious.”


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