The Consequences of Creative and Calculative Mindsets

Time, Date, Venue

14 March 2011, Monday 15.15-16.30

University College London

1st floor Exec-ed room, Engineering Front Building
("Malet place" in Google maps)


My presentation will combine two research papers to demonstrate how and why two particularly important organizational skills, creativity and calculativeness, can have unintended consequences. The first part of my presentation, based on two experiments from my dissertation, shows how creativity can lead to highly ingenious but ethically questionable decisions. These studies are based on the idea that ethical decision making, which is often influenced by intrinsic ethical values (Etzioni, 1988) and moral rules (Kant, 1785; Aquinas, 1947; Mabbott, 1953; Turiel, 1983), is consistent with convergent thinking but creativity is squarely rooted in cognitive flexibility and divergent thinking (Guilford, 1950; Getzels & Jackson, 1962; Amabile, 1983; Runco, 2002). The potential conflict between convergent and divergent thinking suggests that creativity can lead to a relaxation of ethical standards, especially when self interest is activated. Thus, I present two experiments that first activated a creative mindset and then observed that, in two markedly different contexts, individuals creatively cheated by taking advantage of task-systemic loopholes, a practice that is clearly creative but of questionable ethics.
The second part of my talk will be based on our recent research on the potentially negative consequences of calculative rationality (Wang & Murnighan, 2010). The paper suggests that engaging in numerical or quantitative analyses and calculations - critical elements of rational analysis (March, 1978) - creates a calculative mindset that can blunt the ability to recognize a decision’s social consequences. For instance, when managers focus only on a firm’s financial performance and profit maximization, they may overlook or underemphasize the social effects of their decisions (e.g. the welfare of their employees) (Rubinstein, 2006). Thus, in five experiments, we stimulated a calculative mindset in people and observed its effects on their moral and social decisions. The results indicate that, after performing a complex calculation task (or many simple ones), people kept significantly more money for themselves and acted more deceitfully in a series of different behavioral games. The effect was weaker, but still significant when the calculation was non-monetary. A subtle manipulation of the social aspects of their decisions, however, erased these effects.

Taken together, these two programs of research suggest that managers’ mindsets (Gollwitzer, 1990; 1996) are critically important for understanding their decision processes, particularly those that address moral or ethical issues. In particular, although creativity and calculativeness are critical organizational skills, activating creative and calculative mindsets can lead to unintended unethical action. On the one hand, because creativity typically promotes divergent and unconventional thinking (Guilford, 1956; 1963; Nemeth, 1997; Schuldberg, 1997; Runco, 2007), creative individuals may be more inclined to think outside of the box of ethical constraints, resulting in highly creative but less ethical decisions like taking advantage of loopholes. On the other hand, because people with a calculative mindset focus on the numbers more than on the social aspects of their decisions, failing to recognize the implications of calculativeness (Williamson, 1993) can lead to individualistic and deceptive rather than socially-oriented behavior. These findings suggest that organizations might do well to pay more attention to their stimulation of creative and calculative mindsets, particularly prior to moral judgments and decisions.