Morals Fail During Financial Duress

“Employees who feel deprived might perceive their own and their colleagues’ willingness to steal through lenient eyes.”
Morals Fail During Financial Duress

Many who believe they would act nobly under any circumstance will loosen their morals when fi nancially deprived; they’ll also express more compassion for those who act unethically for similar reasons. These conclusions refl ect the fi ndings of a forthcoming study by Eesha Sharma, assistant professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire; Nina Mažar, associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in Canada; Adam L. Alter, assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business; and Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina.

In a pilot survey, participants were asked to predict how their morals would be affected if they were to face financial adversity. They also were asked to express how they would view financially deprived individuals who acted immorally. Most strongly agreed that financial deprivation was no excuse for immoral behavior.

The researchers then conducted five experiments. In one experiment, participants pulled the handle on a slot machine—those in a “deprived” group lost US$2.50 over four pulls; those in a “non-deprived group” gained $2.50 over four pulls.

Next, each group was asked to complete a visual perception task on a computer screen, in which they would receive more money if they reported seeing more dots on the right side of a diagonal line than on the left. Even so, they were asked to be completely honest for the sake of the integrity of future studies. Those who had been in the deprived condition had a higher rate of cheating than those in the non-deprived condition.

In later experiments, the researchers determined whether participants felt a game they had been asked to play was unfair. They found that those in a “deprived/unfair” condition were more likely to cheat than those in “deprived/fair,” “non-deprived/fair,” or “non-deprived/unfair” conditions. This group also judged the immoral acts of others less harshly, but only if those acts were similar to their own.

The experiments “suggest one reason why workplace theft is so common,” the authors write. “Employees who feel deprived relative to the corporations and executives they work for might perceive their own and their colleagues’ willingness to steal through lenient eyes.”

They add that managers involved in enforcing organizational policies should be aware of this “deprivation effect” and understand that their own financial standing could affect how they rule on others who act poorly under duress.

“Financial Deprivation Selectively Shifts Moral Standards and Compromises Moral Decisions” appeared in the September 2013 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.