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Decisions, External Variables and Social Norms


The essay next is a cut from the paper: Contagion and Differentiation in Unethical Behavior - The Effect of One Bad Apple on the Barrel. Which was written by Francesca Gino, Shahar Ayal and Dan Ariely at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. The research test the chance of somebody be dishonesty in a exame after (1) see someone from your social group cheating, (2) see someone from a different social group cheating, (3) talk about cheating.

In a world where encounters with dishonesty are frequent, it is important to know if exposure to other people’s unethical behavior can increase or decrease an individual’s dishonesty. In Experiment 1, our confederate cheated ostentatiously by finishing a task impossibly quickly and leaving the room with the maximum reward. In line with social norms theory, participants’ level of unethical behavior increased when the confederate was an in-group member, but decreased when the confederate was an out-group member. In Experiment 2, our confederate instead asked a question about cheating, which merely strengthened the saliency of this possibility. This manipulation decreased the level of unethical behavior among the other group members. These results suggest that individuals’ unethicality does not depend on the simple calculations of cost-benefit analysis, but rather depends on the social norms implied by the dishonesty of others and also on the saliency of dishonesty.

The unethical behavior of other individuals can influence observers’ behavior in (at least) three possible ways.

First, when exposed to the dishonesty of others, individuals may change their estimate of the likelihood of being caught cheating (e.g., a student who sees a peer cheating on an exam and getting away with it may change his or her estimation of the probability of being caught in the act). Together with the amount to be gained from cheating and the expected punishment, the likelihood of being caught cheating is a central input in the rational crime theory (Allingham & Sandmo, 1972; Becker, 1968). In this rational framework, the individual engages in a cost-benefit calculation that leads to the ultimate decision about dishonesty (support for this perspective is evident in work by Hill & Kochendorfer, 1969; Leming, 1980; Michaels & Miethe, 1989; Steininger, Johnson, & Kirts, 1964; Tittle & Rowe, 1973; and Vitro & Schoer, 1972). As a consequence of such cost-benefit analysis, any change in the estimation of the likelihood of being caught cheating can influence the magnitude of dishonesty an individual chooses to engage in (e.g., the student who sees a peer cheating on an exam and getting away with it changes his or her estimation of the probability of being caught in the act and is thus more likely to cheat).

A second way in which observing others’ behavior may change one’s own dishonesty concerns the saliency of ethicality at the moment one is considering a particular behavior. Previous research has shown that when the categorization of a particular behavior is not clear-cut, people can, and in fact often do, categorize their own actions in positive terms, avoiding negative updating to their moral self-image (Baumeister, 1998; Schweitzer & Hsee, 2002). However, Mazar, Amir, and Ariely (2008) found that drawing people’s attention to moral standards could reduce dishonest behaviors. For example, after being asked to recall the Ten Commandments, participants who were given the opportunity to cheat, and gain financially from this action, did not cheat at all; in contrast, participants who had the same opportunity to cheat but had not been given the moral reminder cheated substantially. These results suggest that when unethical behavior is made salient, people may pay greater attention to their own moral standards and categorize the ethi- cality of their own behavior more rigidly. Such momentary fluctuations in moral standards are also evident in a study by Vohs and Schooler (2008), who found that priming participants to believe in determinism (e.g., by making them read statements endorsing determinism) led to higher levels of dishonesty than inducing participants to believe in free will. The saliency hy- pothesis suggests that when people observe someone behaving dishonestly (e.g., when they read about a new corruption scheme), the saliency of this act increases, making them pay attention to honesty and to their own standards of honesty, and, as a consequence, decreasing their tendency to engage in dis- honest acts.

A third possible influence of observing the unethicality of another person is that it simply changes one’s understanding of the social norms related to dishonesty (Cialdini & Trost, 1998). Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren (1990) defined two types of social norms: descriptive norms, which specify what most people do in a particular situation, and injunctive norms, which specify the particular behaviors that most people approve or disapprove of. According to normfocus theory (Cialdini et al., 1990; Reno, Cialdini, & Kallgren, 1993), the social context determines which of these two types of norms people attend to at a particular time and how these norms will impinge on an individual’s immediate behavior. For example, Cialdini et al. had a confederate litter in the environment in front of some participants or simply walk through the environment in front of others. Participants who saw the confederate litter subse- quently littered more than those who did not see the confed- erate litter if the environment was clean, but this effect was reversed when the environment was dirty. This kind of social learning by observing other people’s behavior was also demon- strated in Bandura’s classic studies (Bandura, 1965; Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961, 1963), in which children exposed to an aggressive model reproduced considerably more aggressive behaviors toward a Bobo doll than did children who were not exposed to the aggressive model. Moreover, children reproduced more aggressive behaviors when an adult did not comment on the aggressive model’s actions (or when an adult was not present in the room) than when the adult disapproved of those actions using negative comments (Hicks, 1968; Siegel & Kolin, 1959). Children might have interpreted the lack of evaluative comments on the model’s aggressive behavior and the absence of an adult in the room as signs of permission, through social norms.

The results of the two experiments show that people react to the unethical behavior of others, and that their reaction depends on the social norms implied by the observed dishonesty and also on the saliency of dishonesty. Our results also show that reaction to the dishonesty of others does not seem to depend on changes in the calculations of cost-benefit analysis. In Experiment 1, observing an in-group peer engaging in unethical behavior increased participants’ likelihood of acting unethically them- selves. However, observing an out-group peer engaging in unethical behavior reduced participants’ likelihood of acting unethically themselves. In Experiment 2, we tested the inde- pendent effect of saliency and found support for the idea that when the saliency of dishonesty increases (at least when social norms are not implied), cheating decreases.


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