In the years since the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements began, companies and consumers have increasingly punished public figures for personal misconduct like harassment and discrimination. But why do some offenders face mere 'slaps on the wrist,' while other, similar cases, bring more serious consequences? In a recent set of studies, we found that the artistic versus scientific nature of the offender's work plays an important role in determining the professional consequences they face.

Punishments Differ Between Arts and Sciences

Some jobs seem very scientific, like engineering and accounting. Others are more artistic, like graphic design and creative writing. Many jobs, though, have elements of both, including advertisers, computer programmers, and chefs.

We recently wondered whether this art-science distinction could influence the professional punishments people face for unrelated personal misconduct. For example, would artists or scientists face harsher punishments such as getting fired for misconduct like harassment or discrimination?

We ran several studies testing this question. We found that professional consequences are less harsh for offenders whose work seems like "more science than art" (vs. "more art than science").

Consider academic institutions—universities, funding agencies, and academic societies—that have jobs across arts and sciences. When academic institutions discipline faculty for personal misconduct, they presumably try to do so equitably. However, our results show that science faculty receive lighter punishments than arts faculty, on average.

In one of our studies, we identified records spanning 40+ years of universities' investigations of faculty for sexual misconduct. We asked one group of research participants to rate whether each offender's field was more artistic or scientific, and another group to rate the university-imposed punishments' severity.

Our analyses showed that the more scientific (vs. artistic) an offender's field seemed, the less severe their punishment. Surprisingly, punishments were not clearly related to the severity of the misconduct, and although punishments were related to other aspects of the situation like the professional rank of the offender, this difference between more scientific and artistic work still mattered.

Separating the Work from the Person Who Produced It

Why do scientists receive less severe professional punishments for their personal misconduct? The answer lies in a psychological process known as "moral decoupling."

Moral decoupling involves separating judgments about a person's morality from judgments about that person's work. It allows people to continue to value the work of ethically controversial figures while still recognizing their personal behavior as immoral.

We had reason to think that morally decoupling scientific work would be easier than artistic work. Science is usually considered impersonal—it doesn't matter who made a discovery because the facts mean the same thing to everyone. Gravity is gravity regardless of how Isaac Newton treated people. Artworks, though, are often viewed as extensions of their creators, making it harder to separate art from the artist. Consequently, when artists behave badly, it more easily spills into people's feelings about their work.

We ran several experiments to test this explanation. In one, we told people about a professor of visual arts or physics who committed sexual misconduct. Afterward, we asked them how much the professor's misconduct should affect judgments of his work (i.e., moral decoupling) and their support for boycotting his work.

As expected, although people condemned both professors' misconduct equally, they decoupled the scientist's (vs. artist's) work more, which meant they were less supportive of boycotting the scientist's work.

Explaining Persistent Misconduct in the Sciences?

Our findings suggest the impersonal nature of science can offer scientists a kind of professional shield, whereas artists' misconduct more easily tarnishes public perception of their work. This might help explain the relative persistence of sexual misconduct in scientific fields.

Even within a profession, though, individuals can differ in how "artsy" or "science-y" they tend to be. In another study, we described a tennis coach who committed tax fraud. Sure enough, just like with actual artists and scientists, people more readily separated the offender's work from his misconduct when we described his work style as scientific (vs. artistic). This again reduced support for boycotting this sports "scientist's" work.

Big Picture

Notably, this art-science divide seems to apply to professional (work-related) consequences like boycotts, deplatforming, demotions, firings, etc. When it comes to personal consequences, like criminal charges, moral decoupling doesn't come into play, and we don't find art-science differences.

Broadly, this research helps explain how relatively educated people in the U.S. often think about art and science, but this might not apply everywhere. In particular, we suspect the results might differ among people who conceptualize science as more personal or art as less personal.

Overall, our findings show how the artistic-versus-scientific nature of someone's work can shape their professional outcomes. This highlights the potential for inequities and suggests a need—especially in scientific fields and industries—to ensure that professional consequences for personal misconduct are proportional, appropriate, and fair.

For Further Reading

Siev, J. J. & Teeny, J. D. (2024). Personal misconduct elicits harsher professional consequences for artists (vs. scientists): A moral decoupling process. Psychological Science, 35(1), 82-92.

Bhattacharjee, A., Berman, J. Z., & Reed, A. II. (2013). Tip of the hat, wag of the finger: How moral decoupling enables consumers to admire and admonish. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(6), 1167-1184.

Joe Siev ( is a postdoctoral fellow in marketing at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Jake Teeny is an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. More information about his research and work can be found at