Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Utah confirmed what has been obvious for eons: Money changes the way we think and the way we behave, and not in a good way. But the researchers went further to see why money has such a corrosive effect.
In a series of four experiments, four groups of college students were exposed to images and statements about money, while four others were exposed to images and statements about anything but money. Then the students were asked questions designed to draw out how they would act when faced with various ethical problems. Sure enough, those who were first made to think about money scored consistently lower on ethics.
In the first study, subjects were exposed to statements with money-related phrases, such as “She spends liberally,” while the control group was exposed to more neutral statements, such as “She walked on grass.” When the subjects were then asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, how likely they were to engage in unethical behavior, like stealing office supplies, the control group proved less likely to succumb. The researchers limited the study to the relatively minor situations that the average person is likely to face—i.e., no major crimes.
In another study, subjects who were asked to play a game that rewarded them for deception were more likely to lie than a control group that had played a neutral game. A third study found students exposed to money prompts were much more likely to write off unethical actions as a justifiable business decision.
One of the researchers, Kristin Smith-Crowe of the University of Utah, said that when participants in the study had an opportunity for financial gain, they became single-minded in pursuing it. “They completely lost track of everything else except pursuing their self interests,” she said in an interview on CNBC. “They focused on the cost benefit of their decisions rather than how it might affect other people.”
The ethics research study, co-authored by Maryam Kouchaki, Arthur P. Brief, and Carlos Sousa, is titled titled “Seeing green: Mere exposure to money triggers a business decision frame and unethical outcomes.”