Why do people readily cheat and lie to those they love? The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story describing the “little lies spouses tell.” Individuals engage in such behavior in order to provide a protective buffer for their partner or to preserve their happiness. Now researchers at Emory University, the Wharton School, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have identified the same behavior among managers in organizations. However, the reasons for this behavior are slightly different. These researchers found that managers are more likely to cheat their business partner when the stakes are low and when there is a close relationship in place.
Why is this? They found that when the stakes are low, there is a tendency to shift away from a cold calculation of cost-benefit reasoning (e.g., will I get a big payoff from lying) to fuzzier forms of reasoning, which they call “moral malleability.” This occurs because individuals and managers who have developed a sense of rapport and understanding between them will tend to evaluate their transactions in more than just economic terms; in other words, they reason that a little opportunism is probably not so bad after all. So an individual might convince him or herself that the lying or cheating is really not so bad (the consequences and pain are low), the act is victimless, or the partner would not really mind. They may even conclude that the partner already knows low levels of cheating are happening regularly and tacitly approves of this activity (and most likely engages in it themselves!).
Using a series of experiments, the researchers found that not only that the cheating and opportunism was not limited to hypothetical choices, but to actual monetary cheating against their partners.
The analysis appears in the April 2013 issue of the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Marketing Research .
The implications of this study are enormous, since it has been widely taught in business schools and touted in the business press that building strong interpersonal relationships, rapport, and a sense of “we-ness” are a great way to limit your partner’s opportunism. This research points to a dark side to this approach, highlighting the possibility that building such strong relationships may actually lead to more of the cheating and opportunism it was intended to limit.
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