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.
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.