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.

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  • Test

    I would say a computer screen that no one can see in an office makes people more dishonest with company time than a larger desk.

  • ProNorden

    Furniture tends to corrupt. Absolute furniture tends to corrupt absolutely.

  • JD Eveland

    Any of these studies can be picked apart; however, taken together they at least suggest that further research into the relationship of offices and abuses of power ought to be undertaken. When I started working for the Federal government (DHEW) back in 1968, I had the opportunity to work with both well-established programs and with innovative new programs just being established, as well as with several ad hoc task forces. The best work was always done with the worst furniture. I formulated a hypothesis at the time that the moment a program passed from its exciting innovative stages to its stable established state was the moment that the office furniture catalogs came out and people began selecting their desks and related items. I have only anecdotal data supporting this hypothesis, but it fairly screams for a more systematic investigation. It is certainly consistent with the arguments presented here; I never saw much really bad office behavior from anyone with a small desk; but once they got the big one to stand behind, watch out! I don't know who might be interested in supporting this research - I briefly considered applying to the Steelcase Foundation, but thought better of it - but I would love to see this inquiry pursued.

  • mike wiles

    Research seems a bit of a tenuous link to the conclusion:

    1.) First experiment, being stretched out vs constricted is not the same as having a big office.

    2.) Described fairly poorly, and a sample size of 34 is low.

    3.) Crash and run isn't cheating....

    4.) So...people who buy bigger cars are more likely to park in a situation that could result in a ticket (which they could likely afford, hence their bigger cards).

    The conclusion seems to be force fit into this research.