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Exposure To Money Triggers Unethical Decisions

A set of studies finds that thinking about money makes you more likely to fudge the rules. Uh oh.

Money corrupts. It’s behind almost all political and corporate scandals. It triggers wars. And it can make good people do very bad things. A new study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes takes the association between money and corruption even further, hypothesizing—and then proving—that mere exposure to money (looking at money-related images and words) can trigger unethical behavior.

"My workers and I are interested in why do good people, normal people sometimes engage in unethical behavior," says Kristin Smith-Crowe, one of the study’s authors. "It may not be financial incentive or greed. It could just be the case that the idea of money has an influence on our decisions and our behavior."

The researchers theorized that exposure to money can trigger a business decision frame—a way of looking at decisions that focuses solely on cost/benefit analysis and the pursuit of self-interest—which in turn can lead to unethical outcomes. To test this theory, they completed four studies, all of which contained "descrambling" tasks where participants were primed with phrases that either were money-related ("she spends money liberally") or neutral ("she walked on grass").

In one study, participants were shown 30 of these phrases—15 neutral, 15 money-related for one group, 30 neutral phrases for the control group. They then were given ethically related scenarios and asked ‘‘How likely is it that you would engage in the behavior described?" A sample scenario from the study:

You work as an office assistant for a department at a University. You’re alone in the office making copies and realize you’re out of copy paper at home. You therefore slip a ream of paper into your backpack.

Participants who were primed with money-related phrases were significantly more likely to choose unethical decisions than those who weren’t.

In another study, participants played a game where they could lie to other participants to receive $5—or receive $2 without lying. Here’s how it worked:

The game involves two players, and two possible monetary payments: Option A gives $5 to Player 1 and $2 to Player 2 and Option B gives $2 to Player 1 and $5 to Player 2. Only Player 1 knows what the options are. Player 2 knows that there are two options but has no other information. However, Player 2 chooses between the two options based on a message that Player 1 sends. Importantly, Player 1 can send one of two messages. One of the messages (Message 1) is a lie: Option A will earn Player 2 more money than option B. The other message (Message 2) is true: Option B will earn Player 2 more money than option A. In sum, the deception game assesses Player 1’s willingness to lie to benefit herself or himself at the cost of the other player.

All of the participants were assigned to be player 1; there was no player 2. The participants who were primed with money-related cues were significantly more likely (46%) to choose the lie than those primed with neutral cues (22%).

This kind of bad behavior is not good news for business schools, which are more frequently trying to instill socially responsible values in their students. If simply being exposed to money triggers a business frame that leads to unethical decisions, what chance do students have for doing real social good?

Smith-Crowe and her colleagues believe their next step is to explore the notion of the business frame and how it might be tweaked. "We especially want to research how malleable it is and come up with innovations that would expand the decision frame for people," she says. "We are interested in this idea that business does not necessarily have to be conceptualized that narrowly."