Researchers put groups of people and their moral fortitude to the test in a series of situations where acting dishonestly could benefit them in the short-term. In one scenario, participants were faced with whether to lie in negotiating to buy a house to get a better deal. They were less likely to resort to cheating if they were reminded beforehand of another time they bent the rules in their favor.
"There is this general, overarching question of why good people occasionally do bad things," said Oliver Sheldon, assistant professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School and co-author of the study
, which was published on Friday in the journal, Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
"We think part of the explanation for why people occasionally don't behave ethically is their failure to confront and realize there's a temptation," Sheldon said. In addition to acknowledging the temptation, the study suggests that people have to see it as one they might have to struggle with repeatedly, and that could potentially jeopardize their reputation and integrity.
In the first test, the researchers had 98 MBA students act out a scenario where they played a real estate agent trying to buy a historical brownstone in New York for their client. The dilemma: The seller of the property wanted it to be preserved, whereas the client wanted to turn it into a high-rise hotel.
Leading up to the negotiation, half the participants were asked to write about a time they cheated the system, such as taking a bribe or shortcut at work. The other half wrote about an experience in their lives that was less ethically charged, such as making a backup plan in case they didn't get a job they wanted.
The researchers found that 67% of the buyers who recounted a neutral experience ended up lying in the negotiation (saying that their client will keep the property as is), whereas only 45% of the buyers who had recalled an ethical dilemma succumbed to lying.
"Just thinking about temptation generally in advance essentially helps them to counteract temptation when they encounter it," Sheldon said. Although it may seem counterintuitive, there are a lot of cases where being exposed to a temptation spurs us to take action to resist it, he said.
Other research suggests that reminders about temptation can bolster our self-control in other areas. An earlier study
by the other author of the current study, Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago, found that people said they made healthier food choices after they were primed to think about fatty foods, such as chips and cookies.
However, ads for chips and cookies might still convince people to buy unhealthy foods, for example, if people don't recognize them as temptations and also don't recognize them as conflicting with their long-term goals, Sheldon said.
In additional tests, Sheldon and Fishbach asked whether people had to see the temptation as a long-term problem that could compromise their reputation in order to resist it. For one scenario, they worked with a diverse group of 135 people (in terms of age and employment status) they recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk
, a site employers can use to find workers and which researchers can use to find study participants.
The participants filled out a survey about how likely they would be to commit ethically questionable behavior at work, such as calling in sick when they felt tired or stealing office supplies. Similar to the negotiation scenario, the participants wrote about a time either they acted unethically or a neutral experience before taking the survey.
The researchers found that participants were more likely to make ethical decisions at work if they wrote about a time beforehand that they acted unethically. However this was only the case among the participants who answered a version of the survey that asked them to think about all the workplace dilemmas at once, as opposed to one-at-a-time.
This finding suggests that people will only resist temptation if they "think of it as a potential pattern of temptations they are likely to face," Sheldon said, adding that people might view this pattern of temptations as more likely to go against their long term goals about their reputation and self-image.
There are probably various ways that people can act on these findings in their own lives to resist temptations, such as just thinking about the temptations they are likely to face before they go into a situation, Sheldon said. At the workplace, companies might be able to help nudge employees in a subtle way to be more honest by sending emails reminding them about temptations to take office supplies, for example.