Resurrecting the evil genius: examining the relationship between unethical behavior and perceived competence

Daphna Motro, Daniel Sullivan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Purpose: Using the stereotype content model (SCM) as a framework, the authors examine how the negative relationship between peoples’ unethical behavior and perceptions of their competence only holds when the unethical act is simple. Design/methodology/approach: In two studies, participants (n = 401) evaluated the competence of an employee who behaved unethically. In one condition, the unethical behavior was complex (e.g. computer hacking), while in the other it was simple (e.g. stealing items from a closet). Findings: Our findings are built on prior work by showing that employees are considered significantly more competent when their unethical behavior is complex as opposed to simple (“evil genius” effect). Practical implications: Employees may not be discouraged from engaging in complex unethical behavior if they recognize that it might not affect their reputation as a competent employee. Given the negative impact of unethical behavior, this is a consequence that organizations would likely seek to avoid. Originality/value: The authors expand on the SCM by making a clear distinction between how certain behaviors (unethical and complex) influence trait perceptions (warmth and competence). In doing so, the authors identify a moderator – act complexity – that weakens the negative relationship between individuals’ unethical behavior and perceptions of their competence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)591-603
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Managerial Psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jul 7 2022


  • Competence
  • Complexity
  • Social perception
  • Unethical behaviour

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Applied Psychology
  • Management Science and Operations Research
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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