It's All Relative

How comparisons create self-knowledge, action, and emotions.

Unethical behavior can become contagious

Unethical behavior can become contagious

It is becoming increasingly normal to hear about fraud, lies, and less than ethical behavior in all walks of life. Everyday new politicians, business leaders, and athletes are added to lists of the disgraced. Last fall, scandalous behavior rocked my own professional community. An honored scientist confessed to fabricating data (in the spirit of full disclosure, he was a friend who I had worked with for 10 years). While it is natural to first wonder why someone would engage in fraud or how it could go on for so many years, it is also important to consider how a fraudulently inflated performance affects others. That is, if someone gets ahead by secretly cheating and sets an impossibly high standard, how will it affect other people in the environment?

There are at least three ways unethical behavior can harm other people - even people not directly connected to the bad acts:

First, it might discourage people by making them feel inadequate. People are apt to regard the successful other as a standard bearer, especially if they believe that the performance was achieved fairly and that they should be able to attain similar levels of performance. I worry about this for my son. In his classroom and in his Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, I see projects submitted that are obviously more the work of the parent than the child. These projects make the work of actual six and seven-year olds look shabby in the classroom; on the racetrack, they simply cannot compete. I tell my son not to worry about it, to recognize that he has done his best effort and that he should be proud of himself, but I still I worry that he'll be discouraged.

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Second, it might make people act recklessly. People might believe that risky behavior is the only way to get ahead. This might account for some of the risky behavior in the financial markets - the only way to get ahead was to act in increasingly risky ways.  But, this behavior isn’t exclusive to highly-paid athletes and CEOs. Even normal folks can sometimes take competitiveness too far. For example, the website Strava provides cyclists with opportunities to post the routes they have ridden, as well as best times and performances. The fastest rider on a particular route becomes “King of the Mountain.” Although it only a title on a website, the KOM title is valued by subscribers and can lead people to engage in risky behaviors to obtain them. For example, there have been a number of instances in which people striving to obtain the KOM title have been involved in accidents, with tragic outcomes for themselves and others. Just last year, one rider was descending a hill at 10 miles over the posted speed limit, flipped on his bike, and was fatally injured.

Finally, it can lead other people to act unethically. If unethical behaviors are known (or rumored) and the performer still gets rewards, it can create the impression that these bad behaviors are acceptable. In this way, one cheater can lead to more cheating by others: first, by creating a standard that can only be met by cheating; and second, by contributing to a belief that everyone is doing it. You can imagine these dynamics at work in the Tour de France peloton. For years, doping and use of performance-enhancing drugs was an open secret among the riders. The accolades (and prize money) won by those engaging in doping created a standard of performance; and the belief that everyone was doing it created a norm in which doping was acceptable.

In these ways social comparison can make unethical behavior contagious. By comparing performances and behaviors to others, people treat enhanced-performances as standards and come to believe that the only way to get ahead is through repeating questionable behaviors.

I'll talk about the science and evidence behinds these responses in upcoming posts...

Camille Johnson, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at San Jose State University.

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