Just Thinking About Money Can Make You Unethical

Photograph by Chev Wilkinson/Getty Images

Can the very idea of money make you unethical? New research using business students as guinea pigs suggests it can.

The authors conducted four studies that were all variations on a theme: Undergraduate students in an introductory business course were assigned to two groups; one was “primed” to think about money, one wasn’t. In all four studies, the priming involved descrambling a list of words that refers to money (“She spends money liberally”).

What follows was designed to determine the impact of thinking about money. In one study, participants were given word fragments and were asked to fill in the blanks. M A R _ _ _, D E _ _, and T R A _ _ might become “marble, dear, and track,” or “market, deal, and trade.” As the authors expected, students who were primed to think about money were more likely to fill in the blanks to create money-related words.

The other three studies put the students to the ethics test. In one, students were given a series of scenarios—such as lifting a ream of paper from the copy room when no one was looking—and asked how likely they were to engage in that behavior. In another, they were given a choice between telling the truth, and earning $2, or telling a lie and earning $5.

In the third study, the authors created a hiring scenario. The students were asked to put themselves in the shoes of a managing director responsible for hiring an assistant marketing manager. The director interviewed a candidate who was qualified for the job, and at the end of the interview asked what the candidate could do that others could not. The candidate implied he had access to confidential information that would benefit the company. The students were asked how likely they would be to hire the candidate.

In all three studies, students who had been primed to think about money were more likely to do the unethical thing. They poached the copy paper, lied for money, and hired the job candidate ready to sell out another company.

Kristen Smith-Crowe, an associate management professor at the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business who was one of the co-authors of the study, said the students who acted unethically did so because thinking about money put them in a business mindset, with a narrow focus on cost-benefit analysis and self-interest.

“It was changing the way they were thinking,” she says. “When they saw these words related to money, they thought they were making a business decision. They started thinking narrowly in these terms to the exclusion of other considerations, like morality.”

While the studies used business students, Smith-Crowe says she doesn’t think the problem is limited to them. The real problem, she says, is that the idea of business which we all carry around in our brains lacks a sense of responsibility to others. But hope isn’t lost. She adds that the growing interest in corporate social responsibility in business schools suggests that narrow definition of business is starting to change.

The study, “Seeing green: Mere exposure to money triggers a business decision frame and unethical outcomes,” was published in the May issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum, visit us on Facebook, and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.