How Money Makes You Lie and Cheat

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Getty Images/Collection Mix: Subjects RF / Getty Images/Collection Mix: Subjects RF

Money corrupts, they say, and now there’s a study that shows why people get so sneaky when it comes to making a profit.

The research, which was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, revealed that people doubled the number of lies they told in order to earn extra cash if they were first prompted to think about money. The study involved more than 300 business students who participated in several experiments, all of which showed that cuing people to consider money increased either unethical intentions or actions.

“Our research suggests that we may be vulnerable to some influences that we’re not aware of,” says study co-author Kristen Smith-Crowe, associate professor of management at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, “Our moral behavior may be affected by things in the environment that we have no idea are affecting us.”

The students were randomly assigned to think about either money or about nothing in particular by descrambling sentences; the money-related sentences included phrases such as “She spends money liberally” while those unrelated to cash included “She walked on grass.”

In one trial involving 50 participants, those who reconstructed the money-related sentences were far more likely to say they would do things like steal a ream of paper from the office copy machine than those who worked with the unrelated sentences. In another test involving 91 students, participants played a game in which they could either lie to a person they were told was another player and earn $5 or tell the truth and earn $2.  Students cued to consider money told twice as many lies.

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In the final study, 65 business undergrads— with an average of 3 years full time work experience— were asked to  place themselves in the position of considering candidates for employment. They were presented with the case of a qualified applicant who offered to provide confidential information that would benefit the company if hired. Again, those primed to think about money were more likely to hire the unethical candidate. Similarly, those who worked with the money-related sentences were also more likely to cheat in a game that was rigged to reward them regardless of whether they played by the rules or not.

But the students could have simply been acting out of self-interest, so to determine if the students were just being selfish, or whether they were more motivated by the need to maximize profit and gain — admirable goals in the commerce-oriented business world — the researchers also conducted other tests to separate personal greed from a “just doing business” position. They found that a business mindset was more closely linked to unethical intentions and behaviors than were feelings related to power, competition or simply looking out for oneself.

“The main point is a ‘wow’ finding – that small and unnoticeable reminders of money can produce lying, cheating, and essentially stealing 10 minutes later. That is really fascinating,” says Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, who has conducted similar research but was not associated with this study.

Why would thoughts of money increase misbehavior? “[Money cues] trigger this business decision frame [like seeing the world only through] a cost/benefit analysis and the significance is that we’re not considering other things like moral issues,” says Smith-Crowe.

MORE: Why the Rich Are Less Ethical: They See Greed as Good

The research adds to prior work connecting wealth, greed and unethical behavior; one series of studies found that those who were rich were more likely to engage in sketchy actions, ranging from shoplifting, cutting people off in their cars to lying to job seekers to giving less to charity proportionally than those who were less well off.

In one study, this connection was explained almost entirely by the more common belief among the wealthy that greed — or love of money — was good, and an admirable quality, rather than by class itself. When the research was published, author Paul Piff of the University of California in Berkeley told me, “We’re not arguing that rich people are bad at all, but that psychological features of wealth have these natural effects.”

Which may explain why money is so often seen as corrupting and having a negative influence on people’s behavior. That doesn’t bode well for a population living in an increasingly uncertain and highly unequal economy, where more relationships have become transactional and the “just business” strategy, rather than a morally driven one, seems to make more sense. “A lot of the socialization [into working in business] involves ideas like maximizing profits and shareholder wealth,” says Smith-Crowe,  “We want to ask the question, and we’re just starting on research in this:  Can people’s concepts of business be changed so we can extend them to include moral considerations?”

One can only hope.