Just the Thought of Money Makes Us Unethical, Study Says

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Just the thought of money makes us unethical, study says
Harvard / University of UtahThe money (left) and control/neutral (right) pictures used to "prime" participants in one study of how money influences moral outcomes.
The mere thought of money can trigger a subconscious mindset that predisposes people towards unethical actions, according to recent research by professors at Harvard and the University of Utah.

Earlier work suggested that subtle exposure to money can influence behavior and decisions in self-centered ways, making people in studies more likely to choose an individual activity over a group one, for instance. This new research set out to to determine how such exposure might impact "morally relevant outcomes," in light of money's enormous importance to society in general and business organizations in particular.

Participants were exposed to the concept of money -- or not, in the case of control groups -- by unscrambling phrases or viewing images. They then carried out tasks that presented opportunities for dishonesty or other underhanded dealing. In all four studies, people who had been "primed" with the thought of money "were more likely to demonstrate unethical intentions, decisions, and behavior than participants in a control condition," according to Kristin Smith-Crowe, psychologist and associate professor at Utah's David Eccles School of Business.

Smith-Crowe and her coauthors conclude that "money may be a more insidious corruption factor that previously appreciated, going well beyond the often lamented 'love of money' to touch even those not overtly motivated by greed."

Is Money Morality's Kryptonite?

The authors open their discussion with the example of Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus in return for 30 pieces of silver made him "an archetype of immorality." "The repugnance of Judas' behavior," they explain, "is in the severing of social bonds for mere money." (Pretty sure getting the son of God killed had something to do with it, too, but this is behavioral psychology, not Biblical studies.) A premise of the paper is that morality is embedded in social relations, and hence encompasses more than the dictum "do no harm": antisocial behaviors can be considered wrong even if they don't hurt someone directly, since they undermine the rules that promote cooperation and trust.

The role of money in this conception of morality is suggested by that old bugbear of capitalism, Karl Marx: "As this perverting power, money then appears as the enemy of man and social bonds that pretend to self-subsistence." But beyond money's obvious effects on society -- turning human faculties into commodities, as Marx suggested, and alienating people from both the products of their labor and human nature itself -- the authors were interested in "the influence that the mere presence of money or a symbolic representation of money may have on us without our awareness."

That influence, they hypothesized, is mediated through a "business decision frame" -- a point of view that objectifies social relationships, making them elements in a cost-benefit calculus driven by self-interest. This is well illustrated by the example of a Ford (F) recall coordinator in the 1970s, who twice voted not to recall the Pinto despite the known danger of gas tank ruptures and explosions in low-impact collisions. "[I]n the context of his job, the moral necessity was not apparent to him. As he later explained, he perceived the decision to recall the Pinto to be a business decision, not a moral one." And to him, "in a business sense the losses were within acceptable parameters."

To test their hypotheses, the researchers primed participants by having them unscramble sentences ("She spends money liberally" vs. "She walks on grass") before testing their moral responses in various ways. In one study, subjects were shown a series of scenarios in which unethical acts were committed and asked how likely they would be to engage in the same behaviors. (The example given in the paper, stealing a ream of copy paper from a university office job, seems quite tame to me, but then I am currently covering the financial industry.)

Another featured a two-player "deception game" in which lying earned more money than telling the truth; there was twice as much deception among the money-primed players. Those who had "seen green" were also more likely to say they would choose to hire a job candidate who promised to share insider information on a competitor, and to characterize this misdeed as a "business decision." Participants in these studies were undergraduates at a U.S. university, receiving course credit in their introductory business course.

What Is To Be Done?

While they obviously don't advocate the abolition of money, the authors do suggest, in light of these results, that organizations be on the lookout for "environmental or contextual cues" that might negatively influence their members' behavior, without even rising to the level of consciousness. Businesses, in other words, should be aware that deep-seated associations activated on the job might predispose employees towards immorality. Given the disastrous consequences of recent scandals emanating from bastions of the business decision frame, as well as the likely effects of ongoing environmental degradation, a societal effort to broaden our "construal of business as an activity narrowly constituted of self-interest and cost-benefit concerns" is urgently needed. In an interview, Smith-Crowe said, "Business ethics has become a lot more prominent in curricula across business schools, but there's definitely this tension to some extent, of what's the point of business? Is it to maximize wealth, or it broader than that?"

These findings would not surprise the man generally considered the founding theorist of capitalism, whose first work was in fact a treatise on moral philosophy. Long ago, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith wrote of an inverse proportion between regard for wealth and concern for others:

"This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise or, at least, neglect persons of poor and mean conditions, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."

For Smith, no person, no matter how selfish, is wholly without sympathy, the ability to imagine oneself in another's position. This innate faculty leads us to make concessions to others, even as we pursue our own self-interest; but a misplaced veneration of the "gaudy and glittering" clouds our perceptions of people, and leads us to take shortcuts in our efforts at self-advancement. This is especially problematic in "the superior stations of life" -- "in the courts of princes, in the drawing-rooms of the great," or in the White House and on Wall Street -- where "the road to virtue and that to fortune" are not necessarily the same, a principle that the business students who participated in the studies seem to have internalized.

On this, Karl Marx and Adam Smith are in agreement: Money is the enemy of people's natural relation to each other. And if Smith-Crowe and her colleagues are correct, it only takes a hint of green to corrupt our moral sentiments.

The studies' results have been published as Kouchaki, M., et al. Kouchaki, M., et al. "Seeing green: Mere exposure to money triggers a business decision frame and unethical outcomes." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.12.002.


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