Dirty Money: Mere Exposure to Money Motivates to Think Business, Cheat and Lie

by Maryam Kouchaki

Lab Fellow Maryam Kouchaki, along with co-authors Kristin Smith-Crowe, Associate Professor, and Arthur P. Brief, Presidential Professor and Chair in Business Ethics, both at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business; and Carlos Sousa, a former University of Utah graduate student, have published a study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes showing how mere exposure to money – even simply using money-related words – will trigger unethical behavior.

“To our knowledge, we are the first to empirically test the link between mere exposure to money and unethical outcomes,” write the researchers. “Testing this link is important because money is a central pursuit of business organizations, and, as recent scandals illustrate, immorality in organizations can have devastating effects.”

The researchers conducted four studies which are reported in the article, “Seeing Green: Mere Exposure to Money Triggers a Business Decision Frame and Unethical Outcomes.” The first two demonstrate the connection between money and unethical behavior, while the second two examine the link between money, adoption of a business frame of mind, and unethical acts. Thinking about money leads people to think ‘business,’ and it’s this framing of a situation as a business one that leads to unethical behaviors, such as lying, cheating and acting in one’s self-interest without regard to others.

In one of the studies, participants exposed to money-related words were twice as likely to lie as those who were not. In others, they cheated and made unethical decisions more often in order to earn more money. The four studies used college undergraduates enrolled in introductory business courses. The researchers used various kinds of money cues for some of the participants, while the control groups were not exposed to money references. The participants then had to make choices between ethical and unethical behaviors.

“Our findings suggest that money is a more insidious corrupting factor than previously appreciated, as mere, subtle exposure to money can be a corrupting influence,” write the researchers. Because their subjects were U.S. residents, the findings are not generalizable to other cultures.

The researchers believe that their work cements the relationship between business and unethical behavior. Previous psychological research has shown that economics education among business students promotes greed, and that business students are more likely to cheat and engage in self-interested behavior. Other work finds that after exposure to money, people are less likely to help others, less likely to ask for help, and more likely to work alone. Other researchers have demonstrated that priming people to think about business elicits competitive and self-interested behavior. “We will continue to live with headlines reporting business wrongdoing until we take effective steps to alter the nature of business education and subsequently the practice of business,” Brief said.

Altering business organizations is not easy; money is an integral part of business. Yet this research suggests that we should be aware of the potential of environmental or contextual cues for influencing people’s unconscious unethical behavior. Everyone should be warned about the potential moral obstacles of money and business.

Lab Fellow Maryam Kouchaki, along with co-authors Kristin Smith-Crowe, Associate Professor, and Arthur P. Brief, Presidential Professor and Chair in Business Ethics, both at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business; and Carlos Sousa, a former University of Utah graduate student, have published a study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes showing how mere exposure to money – even simply using money-related words – will trigger unethical behavior.

“To our knowledge, we are the first to empirically test the link between mere exposure to money and unethical outcomes,” write the researchers. “Testing this link is important because money is a central pursuit of business organizations, and, as recent scandals illustrate, immorality in organizations can have devastating effects.”

The researchers conducted four studies which are reported in the article, “Seeing Green: Mere Exposure to Money Triggers a Business Decision Frame and Unethical Outcomes.” The first two demonstrate the connection between money and unethical behavior, while the second two examine the link between money, adoption of a business frame of mind, and unethical acts. Thinking about money leads people to think ‘business,’ and it’s this framing of a situation as a business one that leads to unethical behaviors, such as lying, cheating and acting in one’s self-interest without regard to others.

In one of the studies, participants exposed to money-related words were twice as likely to lie as those who were not. In others, they cheated and made unethical decisions more often in order to earn more money. The four studies used college undergraduates enrolled in introductory business courses. The researchers used various kinds of money cues for some of the participants, while the control groups were not exposed to money references. The participants then had to make choices between ethical and unethical behaviors.

“Our findings suggest that money is a more insidious corrupting factor than previously appreciated, as mere, subtle exposure to money can be a corrupting influence,” write the researchers. Because their subjects were U.S. residents, the findings are not generalizable to other cultures.
The researchers believe that their work cements the relationship between business and unethical behavior. Previous psychological research has shown that economics education among business students promotes greed, and that business students are more likely to cheat and engage in self-interested behavior. Other work finds that after exposure to money, people are less likely to help others, less likely to ask for help, and more likely to work alone. Other researchers have demonstrated that priming people to think about business elicits competitive and self-interested behavior. “We will continue to live with headlines reporting business wrongdoing until we take effective steps to alter the nature of business education and subsequently the practice of business,” Brief said.

Altering business organizations is not easy; money is an integral part of business. Yet this research suggests that we should be aware of the potential of environmental or contextual cues for influencing people’s unconscious unethical behavior. Everyone should be warned about the potential moral obstacles of money and business.