It’s human nature to look at white collar criminals like Bernie Madoff and cast them off as greedy, money-grubbing crooks.
But what if we all have a little Madoff inside us just waiting to rear its ugly head?
Researchers have increasingly explored the subconscious link between money and corruption –– called behavioural ethicality –– to find out why even morally conscious people are able to cause harm to others.
In a first-of-its-kind study from the University of Utah and Harvard University, hundreds of participants proved that simply the idea of money could lead them astray.
In four studies, 324 participants were asked to perform simple tasks, like word scrambles, that gave them subtle reminders of money with words or images. Control groups performed tasks without the money cues.
Afterward, researchers tested them in different ethical scenarios, such as watching an actor perform unethical tasks and deciding how likely they would be to do the same. Another test placed them in a hypothetical job hiring situation and asked them how likely they would be to hire a candidate who promised to divulge insider information on a competitor.
Across the board, participants who had been given money-related tasks had a greater likelihood of unethical intentions, decisions and behaviours, study co-author and Psychology professor Kristin Smith-Crowe told Business Insider.
“What was happening with our participants is that the exposure to the concept of money was actually affecting they way they were thinking,” Smith-Crowe said. “The money cues were triggering a business decision mind frame, which meant that they focused on a cost benefit analysis as motivation to pursue their own self interest, rather than thinking about things more broadly.”
Even people who took tests with super subtle money cues –– such as a word search that contained money-related terms –– were more likely to engage in unethical behaviour, they found.
“It makes a lot of sense that greed would produce evil,” Smith-Crowe said. “But we were interested in the fact that maybe it’s not even love of money, but just the mere subtle exposure to the concept of money that, in and of itself, may also be corrupting.”
The question now is whether we can stop people in places of power from making the kinds of self-promoting decisions that tend to harm others. Many companies ask employees to undergo ethics training, but Harvard researchers say that isn’t enough.
“If ethics training is to actually change and improve ethical decision-making, it needs to incorporate behavioural ethics, and specifically the subtle ways in which our ethics are bounded,” wrote Harvard researchers Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel in their study, “Blind Spot: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It.”
But according to Smith-Crowe, studies like hers are further-reaching than just the business world.
“It’s still pretty amazing to us that these subtle cues to money can have that big of an effect on our decisions and our behaviour,” she said. “We feel like we know right form wrong, but we have to recognise that we’re affected by things without realising it.”
You can find Smith-Crowe and her team’s study, “Seeing green: Mere exposure to money triggers a business decision frame and unethical outcomes” in the May 2013 issue of “Organizational behaviour and Human Decision Processes.”
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