2. Moral Self

Antecedents and consequences of unethical behavior

One of the primary challenges facing organizations today lies in the core of human morality: mitigating widespread ethically questionable actions by organizational actors at all levels.  People care about being moral and want to feel good about themselves.  In my work, I seek to understand the antecedents and consequences of engaging in ethically questionable behavior, and design organizational interventions to communicate ethics effectively. 

The interpersonal costs of dishonesty: How dishonest behavior reduces individuals’ ability to read others’ emotions (forthcoming)

In this research, we examine the unintended consequences of dishonest behavior for one’s interpersonal abilities and subsequent ethical behavior. Specifically, we unpack how dishonest conduct can reduce one’s generalized empathic accuracy—the ability to accurately read other people’s emotional states—distinguishing these two constructs from one another and demonstrating a causal relationship. Across seven studies (n=2,377), we find support for (1) a correlational and causal account of dishonest behavior reducing empathic accuracy, (2) an underlying mechanism of reduced relational self-construal (i.e., the tendency to define the self in terms of close relationships), (3) negative downstream consequences of impaired empathic accuracy in terms of dehumanization and subsequent dishonesty, and (4) a physiological trait (i.e., vagal reactivity) that serves as a boundary condition for the relationship between dishonest behavior and empathic accuracy. We discuss the implications of our results for the literature on behavioral ethics and interpersonal cognition.


Different physiological reactions when observing lies vs. truths: Initial evidence and an intervention to enhance accuracy (forthcoming)

Humans consistently face the challenge of discerning liars from truth-tellers. Hundreds of studies in which observers judge the veracity of laboratory-created lies and truths suggests this is a difficult task; in this context, lie-detection accuracy is notoriously poor. Challenging these findings and traditional methodologies in lie-detection research, we draw upon the somatic marker hypothesis and research on interoception to find that: (1) people experience physiological reactions indicating increased sympathetic arousal while observing real, high-stakes lies (vs. truths), and (2) attending to these physiological reactions may improve lie-detection accuracy. Consistent with the tipping point framework, participants demonstrated more physiological arousal and vasoconstriction while observing real crime liars versus truth-tellers, but not mock crime liars versus truth-tellers (Experiment 1; N = 48). Experiment 2 replicated this effect in a larger sample of participants (N = 169). Experiment 3 generalized this effect to a novel set of stimuli; participants demonstrated more physiological arousal to game show contestants who lied (vs. told the truth) about their intention to cooperate in a high-stakes economic game (N = 71). In an intervention study (Experiment 4; N = 428), participants were trained to attend to their physiological signals; lie-detection accuracy increased relative to a control condition. Experiment 5 (N = 354) replicated this effect, and the addition of a bogus training condition suggested that increased accuracy was not simply attributable to self-focused attention. Findings highlight the limitations of relying on laboratory-created lies to study human lie-detection and suggest that observers have automatic, physiological reactions to being deceived.

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Cheater’s hide and seek: Strategic cognitive network activation during ethical decision making (2019)

We consider the dynamic process by which people cognitively activate their social networks during ethical decision making. We compare actors’ goals during anticipatory and ex-post phases of ethical decision making, and propose that they trigger hide-and-seek patterns of network activation. Experiment 1 links cognitively activated network structures with self-report ethical behavior. Consistent with “hiding goals,” actors randomly assigned to anticipate behaving unethically (versus honestly or in the control condition), activated sparser networks that could better hide unethicality (Experiment 2). Consistent with “seeking” goals, participants randomly assigned to unethical (versus honest) conditions mentally activated dense networks, seeking out social support to uphold their sense of self (Experiment 3a). This network activation process is mitigated when participants affirm themselves (Experiment 3b). Experiment 4 replicates these hide and seek patterns of social network activation in a single study that captures both the anticipatory and ex-post phases of ethical decision making.


Lay theories of effortful honesty: Does the honesty-effort association justify making a dishonest decision? (2018)

Are our moral decisions and actions influenced by our beliefs about how much effort it takes to do the right thing? We hypothesized that the belief that honesty is effortful predicts subsequent dishonest behavior because it facilitates one’s ability to justify such actions. In Study 1 (N = 210), we developed an implicit measure of people’s beliefs about whether honesty is effortful, and we found that this lay theory predicts dishonesty. In Study 2 (N = 339), we experimentally manipulated individuals’ lay theories about honesty and effort and found that an individual’s lay theory that honesty is effortful increased subsequent dishonesty. In Study 3, we manipulated (Study 3a; N = 294) and measured (Study 3b; N = 153) lay theories, and then manipulated the strength of situational force that encourages dishonesty, and found that an individual’s lay theory influences subsequent dishonesty only in a weak situation, where individuals have more agency to interpret the situation. This research provides novel insights into how our lay theories linking honesty and effort can help us rationalize our dishonesty, independent of whether a particular moral decision requires effort or not.


Polluted morality: Air pollution predicts criminal activity and unethical behavior (2018)

Air pollution is a serious problem that influences billions of people globally. Although the health and environmental costs of air pollution are well known, the present research investigates its ethical costs. We propose that air pollution can increase criminal and unethical behavior by increasing anxiety. Analysis of a 9-year panel of 9,360 U.S. cities found that air pollution predicted six different categories of crime; these analyses accounted for a comprehensive set of control variables (e.g., city and year fixed effects, population, law enforcement) and survived various robustness checks (e.g., non-parametric bootstrapped standard errors, balanced panel). Three subsequent experiments involving American and Indian participants established the causal effect of psychologically experiencing a polluted vs. clean environment on unethical behavior. Consistent with our theoretical perspective, anxiety mediated this effect. Air pollution not only corrupts people's physical health, but can also contaminate their morality.


In search of moral equilibrium: Person, situation, and their interplay in behavioral ethics (2018)

To what extent our unethical behavior a product of dispositional, or situational forces? We argue that unethical behavior should be understood in terms of the dynamic interplay between dispositional factors – such as one’s ability and willpower, personality traits, and motivations and identity, and trait-relevant situational factors.

Envy and interpersonal corruption: Social comparison processes and unethical behavior in organizations (2016)

Our purpose in this chapter is to explore the role of upward social comparisons and the emotional reactions they trigger in the context of unethical behavior. Under what conditions do the potential benefits and costs of an action to others (motivated at least in part by social comparisons and the invidious emotions that these social comparisons can produce) cause an employee to cross ethical boundaries? An understanding of the motives underlying unethical behavior is essential in order for research on unethical behavior in organizations to progress. In exploring this issue, we seek to further the understanding of envy, social comparison processes, and unethical behavior in organizations in three main ways.


The physiology of (dis)honesty: Does it impact health? (2016)

Research suggests that dishonest acts may be embodied. That is, when a person anticipates, or acts, dishonestly, the choice or behavior is not only reflected in the mind but also in the brain and body. While recent summaries of virtuous acts suggests that truth, altruism, and fairness confer a suite of psychological and health benefits to the benefactor, we suggest that lying, cheating, and stealing may do the opposite. We review the neuroscience, psychophysiology, and endocrinology of dishonesty and suggest that, over time, such behavior may be bad for our health.


Hormones and ethics: Understanding the biological basis of unethical behavior (2015)

Globally, fraud has been rising sharply over the last decade, with current estimates placing financial losses at greater than $3.7 trillion annually. Unfortunately, fraud prevention has been stymied by lack of a clear and comprehensive understanding of its underlying causes and mechanisms. In this paper, we focus on an important but neglected topic—the biological antecedents and consequences of unethical conduct—using salivary collection of hormones (testosterone and cortisol). We hypothesized that pre-performance cortisol levels would interact with pre-performance levels of testosterone to regulate cheating behavior in 2 studies. Further, based on the previously untested cheating-as-stress-reduction hypothesis, we predicted a dose–response relationship between cheating and reductions in cortisol and negative affect. Taken together, this research marks the first foray into the possibility that endocrine-system activity plays an important role in the regulation of unethical behavior. 

Poker-faced morality: Concealing emotions leads to utilitarian decision making (2015)

This paper examines how making deliberate efforts to regulate aversive affective responses influences people’s decisions in moral dilemmas. We hypothesize that emotion regulation—mainly suppression and reappraisal—will encourage utilitarian choices in emotionally charged contexts and that this effect will be mediated by the decision maker’s decreased deontological inclinations. In Study 1, we find that individuals who endorsed the utilitarian option (vs. the deontological option) were more likely to suppress their emotional expressions. In Studies 2a, 2b, and 3, we instruct participants to either regulate their emotions, using one of two different strategies (reappraisal vs. suppression), or not to regulate, and we collect data through the concurrent monitoring of psycho-physiological measures. We find that participants are more likely to make utilitarian decisions when asked to suppress their emotions rather than when they do not regulate their affect. In Study 4, we show that one’s reduced deontological inclinations mediate the relationship between emotion regulation and utilitarian decision making. 

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