Dishonesty in the workplace can be a major problem for any business. Recent estimates suggest that theft and fraud by employees reduce the profits of U.S. businesses by $50 billion annually. And to make matters worse, the problem is growing. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners noted that non-cash thefts in workplaces increased over 10% from 2002 to 2018.
The toll, however, isn’t just a financial one. Working in an environment with unethical peers not only can cause stress, but also can lead honest employees to either leave the company or begin to adopt unethical norms for themselves, thereby exacerbating the effects on a corporation’s culture.
Traditionally, businesses have used “top-down” strategies to combat dishonesty. For example, managers or human resource professionals will deliver workshops noting the importance of ethical behavior, a company’s policy to monitor it, and/or the repercussions for violating it. All of these tactics, in one way or another, rely on people engaging self-control in order to be effective. That is, employees have to refrain from seeking a desirable financial, material, or even interpersonal gain that they don’t truly merit. As decades of psychological research have shown, though, self-control can be difficult to maintain.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that study after study reveals that sizable majorities of people admit to having behaved dishonestly at work. It’s for this reason that employee dishonesty bonds, which function as an insurance policy to repay business owners for the losses incurred by employees stealing from them, are growing in popularity. When intervention strategies can’t reduce dishonesty enough, employers are forced to hedge their losses.
My colleagues and I, however, believe that there might be a different way to address the problem — one that works from the “bottom-up.” What I mean by this is a strategy that doesn’t rely on people remembering to try to control selfish impulses, but rather one that automatically strengthens’ people’s ability to resist temptation. Since our past work had revealed that feelings of gratitude work in just this way — that they effortlessly enhance patience and self-control — we wanted to see if gratitude would also reduce dishonest behavior.
To examine this question, we conducted two experiments, the results of which will be published in the journal Psychological Science. In one of these experiments, we asked 141 people to participate in an online study using Amazon MTurk that purportedly examined different types of memories. To induce appropriate emotional states, we randomly assigned each person to write about a time they felt grateful, a time they felt happy and amused, or about the events of their typical day (i.e., a neutral memory).
Before we paid them for their participation, we told them that they could take part in a game of chance wherein they could flip a coin to win one of two monetary prizes: a small one or a larger one. The flip purportedly was anonymous; we gave them a link to open in a separate browser window that took them to the coin flip site. All they had to do to get their money was to go back to the online experiment and indicate the results of their flip: “heads” means they get the larger reward (40 cents); “tails” the smaller one (10 cents).
Unbeknownst to them, the coin was rigged to always come up tails on the first try. If gratitude increased honesty, the prediction was clear: those feeling grateful at the time should be more likely to report they got tails, thus receiving the smaller reward. As it turned out, that’s exactly what they did. The percentage of cheaters among people who had just recalled a time they felt grateful (27%) was less than half that of those who described a time they felt happy or who detailed the events of their normal day (56%). What’s more, the probability of behaving honestly directly increased as a function of the intensity of gratitude people reported feeling after writing.
In a second experiment, we wanted to increase the stakes a bit. Here, we recruited 156 college students to complete the experiment individually in our lab using a similar procedure. This time, however, there were two important differences. First, the coin flip determined whether people would be assigned to complete an enjoyable 10-minute task or an onerous 45-minute one. Second, whichever task remained would be automatically assigned to the next person in the study. As a result of these two changes, people’s decisions not only involved options that dramatically differed in the time and effort that would be required, but also directly impacted the outcomes of another. In choosing to cheat by stating that the virtual coin flip came up heads, people were saving themselves more than a half-hour of drudgery but, in so doing, unfairly dooming another person to it.
While overall levels of cheating were lower (as one would expect given the interpersonal consequences), gratitude worked
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