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Just thinking about money can make you more evil, researchers say

Simone Foxman

Money may not be everything, but it’s probably more than you think. In fact, the effects of moolah on the mind are so strong that money can make you a bad person without realizing it.

That’s the conclusion drawn by new research (paywall) from Maryam Kouchaki at Harvard University and Kristin Smith-Crowe of the University of Utah. In four separate studies, they found that people who were first primed with money-related words or images were more likely to make unethical decisions or lie than those who had seen neutral ones. Thoughts about money made the study’s participants more likely to agree to things like hiring a candidate because he had confidential information that could benefit the company, or stealing a ream of paper from their employer for their home printer.

So, pretty much, thinking about or seeing a greenback might make you a Scrooge. “It’s pretty amazing to us that these subtle cues, environmental cues have this big of an effect,” Smith-Crowe told Quartz in an interview. “[Participants] were conscious that they were seeing words related to money but they were not conscious that these things were actually affecting their decisions and behavior.”

The study was prompted by a desire to figure out what prompts humans to forsake social bonds in favor of personal interest, Smith-Crowe explains. “When you’re engaged in business, you’re often making decisions based on cost-benefit analysis and you’re thinking about self-interest, which may be the company’s interest. But you’re not really thinking about other things.”

Kouchaki and Smith-Crowe found that money words prompted subjects to adopt a “business decision frame,” a mentality in which individuals conducted a kind of cost-benefit analysis to decide whether to pursue self-interest at the expense of social interest. The lens informs the decision; primed with money thoughts, individuals were twice as likely to lie about the results of a test for a small prize.

Oh no! Save your souls! Hide your wallets! Keep the filthy lucre out of your sight!

“Of course, we cannot suggest eliminating money, since money is a necessary feature of business organizations,” the authors write. “Yet, this research suggests that organizations should be aware of the potential of environmental or contextual cues for influencing employees’ unconscious unethical behavior.”

This money-mind mess can, however, be mitigated by what Smith-Crowe calls an “ethical infrastructure.” ”Our point is that you really have to pay a lot of attention, and really even more attention, to the informal systems,” she says—in other words, getting people to behave ethically is more about creating the right culture, environment and cues than it is about setting formal ethical standards. ”If you have a culture of people that feel that cutting corners, doing things unethically is acceptable, you’re going to have a hard time with that in a formal system. [Ethics standards are] sort-of attacking the wrong problem.”

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