Are Creative People More Unethical?

Are Creative People More Unethical?

Psychology January 11, 2021 / By Ingo Zettler, Ph.D
Are Creative People More Unethical?

Recent studies retested the link between creativity and unethical behavior.

It has prominently been argued that more (as compared to less) creative people are more prone to unethical behavior. But is this really true? How is the scientific evidence in this regard? In a recent set of studies, we tackled gaps in the corresponding research literature, aiming to contribute to a more comprehensive account of the link between creativity and unethical behavior. Here is what we did (via two Registered Reports — a beautiful, relatively new publication format supporting credible science) and found out.

Creativity and (un)ethical justifications
Proponents of the idea that creativity is linked to unethical behavior have argued that creative people are better at generating unethical justifications. Unethical justifications are justifications that people (implicitly or explicitly) have or make to rationalize behavior in contrast to ethical or moral norms. For instance, when a shop assistant gives one too much change, one might justify keeping the change by thinking that the shop earns enough money and should compensate for shop assistants’ mistakes. Whereas this idea appears straightforward, we tested two novel aspects.

First, we investigated whether more creative people come up with more and/or with better unethical justifications—because maybe it is the number of unethical justifications that matters for unethical behavior (the higher the number, the more likely it is that people just use one of them to rationalize their behavior) or it is the quality of unethical justifications (one very convincing justification might be better than several less convincing ones). Second, we linked creativity not only to unethical, but also to ethical justifications. That is, we described situations in which unethical behavior was triggered and asked people to come up with a justification for behaving ethically nonetheless. The reason behind this was that creativity might not be linked to the generation of unethical justifications in particular, but rather to the generation of justifications in general.

How we tested it and what we found
To investigate these aspects, we asked around 1,000 people to first fill out a creativity measure, in which they had to come up with unusual ways to use a specific object (but see the next section on potential differences between creativity assessments). Then, we presented them three scenarios in which one could show unethical behavior (like receiving too much change and keeping it), and asked them to come up with ethical and unethical, respectively, justifications for (not) showing such behavior.

Both the descriptions in the creativity task, as well as the (overall more than 20,000) justifications, were rated by independent raters concerning their quality (next to counting the number of answers indicating the quantity of the responses). Summarizing across the analyses, we found that creativity was equally linked to the quantity and quality of both ethical and unethical justifications.

For us, this finding nourishes doubt that creative people are more likely to be unethical; at least, there is no unique link between creativity and unethical—but not ethical—justifications. More creative people just generally come up with more and better justifications for behavior.

Creativity and dishonesty
In a second study, we focused on the link between creativity and dishonesty, because the latter can be assessed (as always, with certain strengths and limitations) via straightforward cheating tasks (as explained here). Herein, we focused on a more comprehensive assessment of creativity, in order to test whether (only) specific measures of creativity are linked to dishonesty.

Specifically, we asked slightly more than 1,000 people to fill out two "subjective" creativity measures—i.e., questionnaires in which people describe how creative they perceive themselves to be, as well as creative activities and achievements—and two "objective" creativity measures—i.e., tasks like the one used in the justifications study described above in which people’s creativity is assessed via their performance in an actual task (among other things, we again used independent raters to rate people’s creativity via given answers).

By linking such a comprehensive creativity assessment to two straightforward dishonesty measures, our (naïve) idea was to provide some clear/er evidence on the link between creativity and unethical behavior. Findings, however, were rather inconclusive.

Specifically, for the first cheating task, we found a small positive relation between creativity and dishonesty when considering the subjective creativity measures, whereas we found a small negative relation when considering the objective creativity measures.

In a similar vein, the different subjective and objective creativity measures were not related to each other in a consistent way. Moreover, for the second cheating task (which might generally be interpreted more cautiously), there was no consistent relation with creativity for neither the subjective nor the objective creativity measures.

So, is creativity now linked to unethical behavior?
In line with reviews on this topic, our studies provide evidence that creativity is sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, and sometimes not directly related to unethical behavior. Overall, my current interpretation is that creative people are not generally more prone to unethical behavior. The kind of creativity assessment seems to play a larger role, which should not be the case if there is a general relation. Yes, people higher in creativity might more easily come up with convincing unethical justifications, but the same applies to ethical justifications. Thus, future research might further aim to disentangle the different creativity assessments (and their pros and cons), as well as delve into more specific circumstances under which creativity is (not) linked to unethical behavior.


Ścigała, K. A., Schild, C., & Zettler, I. (forthcoming). Dark, grey, or bright creativity? (Re)investigating the link between creativity and dishonesty. European Journal of Personality. Preprint available at

Ścigała, K. A., Schild, C., & Zettler, I. (2020). Doing justice to creative justifications: Creativity, honesty-humility, and (un)ethical justifications. Journal of Research in Personality, 89, 104033.

This article originally appeared at Psychology Today.

Ingo Zettler, Ph.D., is a Professor in Personality and Social Behavior at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark where he is part of the Copenhagen Personality and Social Psychology (CoPSY) research group. His research interests include behavioral economics, educational psychology, personality psychology, and work and organizational psychology. He is particularly interested in research on counterproductive work behavior, linking personality traits to various criteria, personality assessment, and the interplay between personality and situation in shaping behavior.

Zettler studied psychology at the University of Bonn, Germany, and received his diploma in psychology in 2006. He worked at the RWTH Aachen University, Germany, where he received his Ph.D. in 2009, as well as the University of Tübingen, Germany.

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