In both studies, men generally set lower ethical standards than women, as they were significantly less likely to recommend disclosure of conflicting intentions in the first scenario, and to condemn a lie in the second. Notably, across both studies men altered their ethical evaluations depending upon their perspective. In the first scenario, men in the seller role were far more likely to recommend that the buyer's true intentions be revealed than men in the buyer role. In the second scenario, men were far more willing to justify a lie when making judgments about their own actions than those of another.
Thus, men's moral judgments varied in such a way as to maximize their own advantage in each negotiation process; when necessary for personal gain, ethical missteps were acceptable. By contrast, women made similar ethical judgments across all perspectives. Even when the ethical choice was clearly detrimental to personal success, women maintained their ethical standards.
A final study used the aptly-named SINS scale (self-reported inappropriate negotiation strategies), which assesses individuals' willingness to violate ethical principles in a variety of negotiation settings. Once again, men were more willing than women to engage in shady tactics: they were more accepting of techniques like making false promises, misrepresenting information, and sabotaging their opponents. This was especially true for men who believed that negotiation prowess was an innate and integral part of their masculine nature – that good negotiators are born, not cultivated. Men who believed that their negotiation skills were a fundamental, fixed part of their identity had higher SINS scores than those who believe that negotiation tactics could be learned or developed.
Before we uniformly cast men as self-serving, cut-throat schemers devoid of moral backbones, it is important to consider the fact that these investigations all used competitive negotiation scenarios, where strong men have, stereotypically, been successful. Failure in these historically male-dominated situations is associated with diminished financial status, threat to professional rank, and - at least to some - weakness. It is possible that women may demonstrate similar vulnerabilities to their moral standards when faced with dilemmas that challenge their feminine competency or identity, or in arenas were women are (stereotypically) expected to be successful (e.g., skill as a mother, navigating social interactions, effectiveness as a writer). Nonetheless, these findings suggest that if ethical standards are a significant factor in your choice of financial advisors or real estate agents, it may be safer to go with Bernadette than with Bernie.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.