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Do Bigger Desks Make People Dishonest?

Putting people in that big corner office might not be a business strategy that helps the rest of us.

We know that people in large corner offices sometimes do bad things. Could the size of the space actually be one cause?

If you’re skeptical about a link between office size and dishonest behavior (and we were), take a look at a new study from Columbia, MIT, Northwestern, Harvard and Berkeley. Across four experiments, it finds that certain expansive environments make people feel more powerful, and that this sense of power can lead to dishonesty. The researchers aren’t saying all people who get big offices go out and rob banks. But they do show environment is relevant, and that might be worth thinking about (for instance, if you’re moving to a new space).

In the first test, 81 people were recruited in Boston, and asked to assume either an expansive or contracted pose. Each participant was promised $4, but actually offered $8, in an apparently accidental over-payment. 78% of the expanded-posture volunteers accepted the money, compared to only 38% of the contracted participants.

Second, 34 students in New York were assigned randomly to large and small desks. The researchers told the participants to unscramble 15 anagrams, then to create a collage from materials placed around where they were sitting (this pushed one group to roam, while the other stayed in place). Then, the volunteers were given the answer key for the anagrams, and told to grade themselves. The big-desk group were more to likely to cheat.

Third, 71 students at Berkeley took part in a driving simulation game ("Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit"), and were offered $10 if they could complete the race in 5 minutes. One group got a big seat, the other a tight one. The researchers wanted to see if there was a difference in how often the volunteers were prepared to hit-and-run to complete the course. The answer was yes: the expansive group was more likely to crash and drive on.

Finally, back in New York, the researchers observed 126 cars in Manhattan, to see if driver seat size had a bearing on how often they were double-parked on busy streets. Sure enough: the larger-seated cars were more likely (71% vs. 51%) to be double-parked.

"Together, these four studies provide multi-method evidence from both lab and field that expansive postures incidentally shaped by our environment can lead to dishonesty," the paper says.

"Our bodies are perpetually enslaved by the structure of our physical spaces, and the current findings suggest that when our bodily postures are incidentally expanded by these spaces, we could be lured into behaving dishonestly."

Why? The researchers note that "power poses" may "activate mental concepts and emotional feelings associated with power," while slumped postures are "associated with learned helplessness and feelings of stress" (which may have the opposite effect).

It’s easy to pick holes in the reasoning. People with big offices are often honest to the core, while people with small offices are sometimes creepy toads. Still, the researchers suggest we give things like office design more "examination and consideration" from an ethical point of view.