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University of Utah study: Subtle exposure to money tweaks people's morals

Published June 14, 2013 10:28 pm

Behavior • Researchers found exposure to cash made unethical decisions more likely.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It doesn't take Scrooge McDuck-style piles of money for regular people to choose profit over ethics, according to a new study from the University of Utah.

In a first-of-its-kind review, researchers found that even subtle exposure to cash can make people more likely to lie and cheat.

"There may be things affecting our morality that we don't realize are having an effect," said Kristin Smith-Crowe, an associate professor of management at the U. and an author of the report published in the May issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Smith-Crowe and her co-authors — who are "all interested in this notion that good people, normal people, can do bad things, too" — designed four trials. They separated students, primarily business majors, into groups and asked them to unscramble sentences such as, "She spends money liberally," or neutral lines such as, "She walks on grass." Some were shown images of cash, others a landscape.

Afterward, they were asked to make ethical decisions, such as whether they would take copy paper from the office supply room or hire someone for their willingness to share confidential information.

In each study, the people exposed to money or images of money were significantly more likely to do the ethically dubious thing —in one case, twice as likely.

"We predicted it, but we were actually still surprised by it," Smith-Crowe said. "We were still pretty amazed the really subtle manipulations we introduced had these profound [effects]."

The next step, she said, is testing whether people can expand that kind of decision-making, known as a business-decision frame, beyond self-interest.

"Is the way we think of business the only way to think about it?" she said. "Is it malleable, can it be expanded to include moral considerations? What sorts of decisions would be made if the business frame were altered?"

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst U. researchers used 4 tests to study the effect of money on morals

1. Subjects were asked to make an ethical decision, such as whether they would take copy paper from a university office.

2. Researchers tested whether an image of cash made students more likely to finish fragments with business-related words.

3. Students played a game in which they could be paid $5 instead of $2 — if they told a lie.

4. Participants were asked if they would hire a job candidate who was willing to share confidential information, then were tested on whether they cheated in order to earn more money in a dot-identification program.