may lead to unethical behavior …
there's a way to wipe the slate clean, according to Jones School Professor
Vikas Mittal’s research.
The Big Ideas
- Researchers have understood that disgust influences how
harshly people judge others’ unethical behavior, but until now they have
not noted how disgust causes people to act selfishly and engage in
unethical behavior themselves.
- It only takes small cues to trigger disgust, which then
triggers people to act in ways that have a negative impact on others.
- Yet, interestingly, just thinking about cleansing
products or actually washing your hands can eliminate these negative
- By understanding how emotional states influence
decision-making and behavior, managers can become more thoughtful about
their own emotional states and those of their employees, to the benefit of
their company’s bottom line.
Many of us have heard the proverb,
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Though not a direct quote from the Old
Testament of the Bible, it seems to have stemmed from some of the book’s
admonitions to avoid the “unclean.” These warnings likely served the purpose of
helping people avoid contaminants that spread disease. The unclean also tends
to elicit the visceral emotional and physical response of disgust.
People are hard-wired to respond
with disgust, and it doesn’t take much to do it. Just watching a gross scene
from a movie or thinking about products like diapers can elicit the emotion.
And that emotion influences people to become more selfish: They focus on taking
care of themselves, like moving away from the offending object or substance,
for example. Disgust triggers an important self-protective mechanism. But can
self-protection go too far?
the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing of the Jones Graduate School of
Business at Rice, along with a team of professors from Smeal College of
Business and W.P. Carey School of Business, demonstrated in previous research
that when people feel disgusted, they view others’ unethical behaviors more
harshly. But they wanted to take the study of disgust’s effects a step further
and sought to explore how the emotion might influence people’s own unjust
behaviors. They also explored what can be done to undo the influence of disgust.
The first part of the hypothesis was
this: If disgust creates a self-protective response in people, and people who
are in a self-protective state of mind are more prone toward acting in ways
that benefit themselves at the expense of others, then eliciting disgust in
individuals should cause them to more likely engage in unethical, self-serving
behaviors than their non-disgusted counterparts.
And why is this important? The
tendency to lie and cheat to get ahead has a huge financial and social impact.
People returning clothes to a store or swiping small items without paying cost
retailers an estimated $37.5 billion a year. Workers pilfering office supplies
might seem innocuous enough, but cost organizations more than $10 billion
annually. And research shows that the more unethical behavior is engaged in by
our peers, the more the behavior becomes the norm. And this unethical culture
has huge societal impacts that can’t be quantified with dollars.
The researchers conducted three
experiments evoking disgust through various means. Each experiment had a
control group, so that researchers could compare the disgusted participants to
the neutral ones. Further, random assignment ensured that causal conclusions
could be established. In one experiment, participants evaluated consumer
products such as anti-diarrheal medicine, diapers, feminine care pads, cat
litter, and adult incontinence products. In another, participants wrote essays
about their most disgusting memory. In the third, participants watched that
disgusting toilet scene from the movie Trainspotting. Once effectively disgusted, participants engaged in
experiments that judged their willingness to lie and cheat for financial gain.
The results? Disgusted participants
lied about the results of a coin toss in order to gain monetary reward. They
lied about solving an unsolvable puzzle to obtain money. They were even willing
to deceive partners for financial gain. Time and again, people who experienced
disgust engaged in self-interested behaviors at a significantly higher rate
than those who did not, just as the researchers had predicted.
After demonstrating that disgust
leads to unethical behaviors, the team wanted to see if this negative effect
could be wiped clean. Researchers had already shown how cleansing thoughts,
scents (like citrus-scented Windex), and behaviors can actually increase
pro-social behaviors as well as leniency and condemnation of others’ unethical
acts. So, Mittal and his colleagues theorized that cleansing behaviors might
actually mitigate the self-serving effects of disgust. In another set of
experiments, after inducing the state of disgust on participants, researchers
then had them evaluate cleansing products, such as disinfectants, household
cleaners and body washes. Those who evaluated the cleansing products did not
engage in deceptive behaviors any more than those in the neutral emotion
In other words, cleansing can
actually eliminate disgust’s negative impact on behavior.
The upshot? It serves managers and
leaders to understand the impact, both ethical and unethical, of emotions on
decision-making. By understanding that ethical decision-making can be
influenced by very small contextual cues, leaders can set aside time to rid
themselves of distractions that might impact their decisions. And finally, not
only does cleanliness matter, but even the mere thought of cleanliness can
influence more ethical behavior.
Reference: For more information, see “Protect Thyself: How Affective Self-Protection Increases Self-Interested
Behavior” by Vikas Mittal, Andrea Morales, and Karen Page Winterich,
forthcoming Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.