Understanding the Dark Side of Motivation July 2015
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New findings from the social sciences explain why people might behave unethically or ignore powerful social norms. Actors in organizations and in larger society could integrate these findings into their efforts to increase ethical and normative behavior, which could help these efforts succeed.
Rich and poor people are equally likely to behave unethically but do so in different situations.
Greed is an important motivation for economic activity but can also have deleterious effects, as the 2008 financial crisis illustrates. Terri Seuntjens, Marcel Zeelenberg, Niels van de Ven, and Seger M. Breugelmans from Tilburg University (Tilburg, Netherlands) recently developed a reliable scale for measuring people's level of greed. The scale requires people to indicate how strongly they identify with statements such as "I always want more," "One can never have too much money," and "I can't imagine having too many things." These statements enable scientists to systematically study links between greed and topics of interest to them, including unethical financial and nonfinancial behavior, social causes of economic inequality, crime, and consumer behavior. Organizations could use this scale to measure greed among employees and job applicants and use the results to inform their decisions about job roles, promotions, and compensation.
In 2012, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, California), and the University of Toronto (Toronto, Canada) published their findings from a study about unethical behavior in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers showed that rich people are more likely than poor people to behave unethically—including by breaking traffic laws, stealing, lying, and promoting unethical behavior at work—and that greed drove their unethical behavior. In a recent study, David Dubois of INSEAD (Fontainebleau, France), Derek Rucker of Northwestern University (Evanston and Chicago, Illinois), and Adam Galinsky of Columbia University (New York, New York) showed that rich and poor people are equally likely to behave unethically but do so in different situations. Rich people lie and cheat when these behaviors benefit them personally. Poor people lie and cheat when these behaviors benefit other people. Poor people rely on family, friends, and the larger community for resources more than rich people do. Poor people who act unethically to help others generally expect others to behave unethically in return, maintaining reciprocal dishonesty to benefit the larger community. In contrast, rich people feel removed from the needs of others and generally feel the need to lie and cheat only when these behaviors benefit them personally.
A psychological cost of unethical behavior is guilt. People who are highly prone to guilt feel discomfort after inadvertently keeping too much change from a purchase and are less likely to engage in unethical behavior than are people who are less prone to guilt. Scott Wiltermuth of the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, California) and Taya Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) studied how guilt affects team dynamics in organizations. The researchers found that guilt-prone people tend to shy away from joining teams with people they perceive as more qualified than they are, because they fear disappointing the other members of the team. During the studies, guilt-prone people in teams containing highly qualified members frequently chose to receive payments on the basis of individual contributions rather than on the basis of team contributions, thereby reducing the perception of unfair payments and eliminating the possibility of hurting the other team members if they performed poorly. The fear of disappointing others and the fear of harming the overall performance of a group can benefit teams by preventing people from taking advantage of their teammates; however, these fears can also hurt teams by preventing people from joining teams and contributing their unique skills to an effort.
Guilt research shows that emotions can influence perceptions. Recent research by Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay from Duke University (Durham, North Carolina) applied this finding to the issue of climate change. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to deny that climate change is happening and that humans cause it—two denials that contradict scientific findings and reduce the likelihood of political action to fight climate change. The researchers tested whether they could change these denials by presenting different solutions to climate change. When the researchers presented climate-change solutions that Republicans favored—namely, free-market solutions driven by innovation—the belief that climate change is occurring and humans are causing it increased among Republicans. When the researchers presented solutions to climate change that Democrats favored—government regulations, for example—the belief in climate change decreased among Republicans. The study shows that solutions to a problem can influence perceptions of how real or severe a problem is. The right solution for the right audience can motivate people to act.
Mark Brandt and Anthony Evans of Tilburg University and Jarret Crawford of The College of New Jersey (Ewing Township, New Jersey) investigated extreme political beliefs more generally. They asked: What motivates people to hold extreme political views? At least two possibilities exist. First, people who hold extreme political views may lack education and use extreme views to create clarity and reduce the anxiety they feel because of their uncertainty about issues. Second, people who hold extreme political views may be particularly well informed and confident about political issues. The researchers' study shows that political extremists tend to be well informed and confident. For example, people with extreme political views are less likely to be influenced by false information than are people with moderate political views.
Understanding why people hold extreme political views is important to organizations that fight extremism. Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski from the University of Maryland, College Park (College Park, Maryland), explains why ordinary people leave their countries to join extremist military movements. For example, some US citizens have joined terrorist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). New recruits to terror organizations often wish to reduce the anxiety and uncertainty they have about the meaning of life. New recruits also search for uniqueness and meaning that regular societies and activities do not seem to offer. Any rewards or benefits terror organizations promise appear to be less important to new recruits than are the structure and certainty these organizations provide. The primary need for structure explains why many new ISIS members from the United States and Europe show limited knowledge of Islam. These findings suggest that early intervention could help prevent deeper absorption of a particular ideology.
People may engage in unethical behavior, break societal norms, or exhibit harmful group behavior for a variety of reasons, including greed, the desire to help others, guilt, the need to avoid unpleasant solutions, feelings of confidence, and the need for clarity, security, and meaning. Organizations that are aware of these social principles may be able to prevent unethical behavior from developing in the first place and create more positive environments for their stakeholders to interact in.