How Money Affects Ethical Behavior

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.”

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5 thoughts on “How Money Affects Ethical Behavior

  1. In general, whenever I see the results of a study, I like to know who sponsored the work. (Did the sugar industry sponsor the study on the side effects of artificial sweeteners?)

    In this particular case, the study authors have obtained data regarding the attitudes of people in their formative years. It’s not clear how this applies to people who have experiences seeing others fail or profit from unethical behavior.

    Third, it helps to be crisper about the size of the groups and the percentages in the different outcomes.

    • That’s an interesting point about the age of the participants. Some of your questions about the study (the size of the groups, the percentages) you’ll find if you click on the link and go to the full report. But there’s no mention of who sponsored it and you’re right, that’s always crucial.

  2. This brings to mind a situation I’ve been in more than once, and my behavior has been inconsistent. What do you do — and why — when you are charged LESS for a purchase than you should be, whether in a restaurant or retail store? When I have had some interaction with the “seller,” such as the restaurant wait staff, I have corrected their mistake and felt noble about doing so. However, when I have had no such ‘personal connection’ — say, handing a purchase to a cashier who then rings it up too low– I have not pointed out the mistake and have not felt guilty. Thinking about it now, I think part of my reaction is based on whether my gain will be someone else’s loss — perceiving (rightly or wrongly) that the wait staff will have to compensate for the incorrect charge and the cashier will not.

    • I think this depends entirely on the size of the business—is it a monolithic corporation like Walmart (though yes, there are franchise owners involved) or is Mom and Pop’s Little Shop? I’d say that size and profit margins would indeed factor into that equation. I’d certainly feel much worse walking into Mom and Pops only store that they operate while indebted to a small business loan and taking profit from them than I would taking profit from a Walmart Supercenter.

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