What do Barry Bonds, Bernie Madoff, and James Murdoch have in common? They were all, in their respective areas, in it to win it – whatever the cost. Their appetite for success apparently disabled the moral compass that would have otherwise kept their dishonesty, greed, and hubris in check.
The magnitude of these highly publicized ethical infractions may lead one to wonder whether folks like Barry, Bernie, and Jimmy were absent the day their kindergarten teachers talked about lying, cheating, and stealing. Recent research, however, suggests that ethical violations are somewhat predictable, that in fact there are specific circumstances, contexts, and individual characteristics that beckon us away from the moral high road.
One of the most notable risk factors for ethical laxity is one that all of the above offenders share: Being a man. A number of studies demonstrate that men have lower moral standards than women, at least in competitive contexts. For example, men are more likely than women to minimize the consequences of moral misconduct, to adopt ethically questionable tactics in strategic endeavors, and to engage in greater deceit. This pattern is particularly pronounced in arenas in which success has (at least historically) been viewed as a sign of male vigor and competence, and where loss signifies weakness, impotence, or cowardice (e.g., a business negotiation or a chess match). When men must use strategy or cunning to prove or defend their masculinity, they are willing to compromise moral standards to assert dominance.
Shall we blame it on testosterone, the Y chromosome, or other genetic differences? The current evidence doesn't point in that direction. Instead, a recent series of studies by Laura Kray and Michael Haselhuhn suggests that the root of this pattern may be more socio-cultural in nature, as men - at least in American culture - seem motivated to protect and defend their masculinity. These scientists suggest that losing a "battle," particularly in contexts that are highly competitive and historically male oriented, presents a threat to masculine competency. Apparently manhood is relatively fragile and precarious, and when it is challenged, men tend to become more aggressive and defensive. So a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. To ensure victory, men will sacrifice moral standards if doing so means winning.
To test this theory, Kray and Haselhuhn conducted several experiments in which they examined not only the kinds of moral decisions made by men and women, but also the personal and situational factors that influenced those decisions. In one study, participants evaluated an ethical scenario in which an elderly couple was selling their home of 40 years with the expectation that the buyer would maintain their cherished abode. The buyer, however, intended to raze the structure and build a new home on the property. Participants had to indicate whether the buyer was morally obligated to reveal the conflicting intentions. Participants also completed a separate questionnaire that assessed the extent to which they perceived negotiating as a masculine endeavor.
Consistent with other findings, men in this investigation were more tolerant of withholding information from the seller. Moreover, this leniency was more prevalent for men who perceived negotiating as a masculine endeavor. Thus men found it more acceptable to deceive if they believed that successful negotiating was an indicator of male prowess.
In two follow up studies, participants considered different viewpoints as they made moral decisions. In one scenario, participants were to consider the moral necessity of revealing a buyer's intentions (which were in conflict with the seller's) in a real estate deal. The twist is that they were asked to do so from the perspective of either the buyer's agent or the seller's agent. In another scenario, participants were to judge whether it was ethical to deceive a potential buyer by fabricating other offers. Here, participants were to imagine that they themselves had lied or that another person had lied, and they were to evaluate the moral appropriateness of the lie.