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Underestimating Our Influence Over Others' Unethical Behavior and Decisions

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  • Ted Rogers School of Management

Abstract and Figures

We examined the psychology of "instigators," people who surround an unethical act and influence the wrongdoer (the "actor") without directly committing the act themselves. In four studies, we found that instigators of unethical acts underestimated their influence over actors. In Studies 1 and 2, university students enlisted other students to commit a "white lie" (Study 1) or commit a small act of vandalism (Study 2) after making predictions about how easy it would be to get their fellow students to do so. In Studies 3 and 4, online samples of participants responded to hypothetical vignettes, for example, about buying children alcohol and taking office supplies home for personal use. In all four studies, instigators failed to recognize the social pressure they levied on actors through simple unethical suggestions, that is, the discomfort actors would experience by making a decision that was inconsistent with the instigator's suggestion.
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Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin
XX(X) 1 –15
© 2013 by the Society for Personality
and Social Psychology, Inc
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DOI: 10.1177/0146167213511825
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Article
“Moody’s had just graded a pool of securities underwritten by
Countrywide Financial, the nation’s largest mortgage lender.
But Countrywide complained that the assessment was too tough.
The next day, Moody’s changed its rating, even though no new
and significant information had come to light.”
—Morgenson, 2008, New York Times
Unethical acts are frequently conducted at the behest of
someone else. Other people can successfully goad us into
doing things that make us uncomfortable because it is even
more uncomfortable to say “no” (Sabini, Siepmann, & Stein,
2001). In the example described above, the Moody’s repre-
sentative felt pressured to consider, and ultimately honor,
Countrywide’s request to alter the ratings, the consequences
of which were devastating to the housing market in 2007.
Although the ultimate decision to finagle Countrywide’s
credit ratings was Moody’s, the Countrywide representative
instigated the Moody’s representative’s unethical behavior.
The current research contrasts the perspective of “actors,”
individuals who ultimately engage in unethical behaviors, to
“instigators,” individuals who influence or incite unethical
behaviors. Specifically, we examine the question of whether
instigators recognize the awkward position they put actors in
when they make an unethical request. Drawing from previ-
ous research on help-seekers’ estimates of the likelihood that
potential helpers will comply with their prosocial requests
(Flynn & Lake [Bohns], 2008), we hypothesize that instiga-
tors will similarly fail to appreciate how uncomfortable it is
for actors to say “no” to their unethical requests. The poten-
tial impact of such a bias is clear. If we do not recognize the
extent to which our unethical suggestions and actions are
likely to affect others’ behavior, we may be careless about
the things we say and do.
Previous research has demonstrated that people tend not
to recognize the influence they have over others when mak-
ing prosocial requests. In a series of studies, Flynn and Lake
(Bohns) (2008) had participants solicit a number of different
help requests from passersby, for example, asking people for
the use of their cell phones, asking to be escorted to a loca-
tion on campus, and soliciting donations for a charity. Before
making these requests, participants were asked to estimate
how many people they would have to approach to get some-
one to say “yes.” Participants in these studies consistently
overestimated—by as much as 50%—the number of people
they would have to ask to get someone to agree to their
requests for help, that is, people were far more likely to say
“yes” to these requests for help than participants expected
(see also Bohns et al., 2011; Flynn & Bohns, 2012; Newark,
Flynn, & Bohns, 2014).
511825PSPXXX10.1177/0146167213511825Personality and Social Psychology BulletinBohns et al.
research-article2013
1University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Vanessa K. Bohns, Department of Management Sciences, University of
Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L
3G1, Canada.
Email: vbohns@uwaterloo.ca
Underestimating Our Influence Over
Others’ Unethical Behavior and Decisions
Vanessa K. Bohns1, M. Mahdi Roghanizad1, and Amy Z. Xu1
Abstract
We examined the psychology of “instigators,” people who surround an unethical act and influence the wrongdoer (the “actor”)
without directly committing the act themselves. In four studies, we found that instigators of unethical acts underestimated
their influence over actors. In Studies 1 and 2, university students enlisted other students to commit a “white lie” (Study 1)
or commit a small act of vandalism (Study 2) after making predictions about how easy it would be to get their fellow students
to do so. In Studies 3 and 4, online samples of participants responded to hypothetical vignettes, for example, about buying
children alcohol and taking office supplies home for personal use. In all four studies, instigators failed to recognize the social
pressure they levied on actors through simple unethical suggestions, that is, the discomfort actors would experience by
making a decision that was inconsistent with the instigator’s suggestion.
Keywords
social influence, egocentrism, moral judgment, unethical behavior
Received June 09, 2013; revision accepted October 15, 2013
2 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin XX(X)
Yet despite the robustness of this effect, it is unclear
whether it is limited to the domain of prosocial behavior, or
whether it is likely to generalize to other types of requests,
for example, unethical requests. On one hand, participants in
these studies may have simply underestimated others’ help-
fulness. On the other hand, participants may have underesti-
mated the power of their own requests. This latter possibility
is particularly important from a theoretical standpoint
because it suggests that the Flynn and Lake (Bohns) effect
may extend to a wider range of influence scenarios than orig-
inally thought. People may not simply be more likely to help
us than we expect but may be more likely to do what we ask
than we expect, regardless of what we are asking.
Furthermore, it is not obvious that these findings would
extend to unethical acts. Research on people’s general impres-
sions of others’ prosocial nature and ethicality suggests that
people tend not to think very highly of others’ moral com-
passes. For example, research on the “holier than thou effect”
(e.g., Balcetis, Dunning, & Miller, 2008) has demonstrated
that people see others as less moral than themselves. Similarly,
research on the “norm of self-interest” (Miller, 1999) sug-
gests that people see others as generally less charitable and
more selfish than they actually are. Instigators may therefore
view pressuring another person to engage in an unethical act
to be a much easier feat than getting someone to engage in a
prosocial act. For these reasons, it would be particularly note-
worthy if the Flynn and Lake (Bohns) (2008) findings
extended to the domain of unethical behavior.
We hypothesize that the same egocentric mechanism
underlying the underestimation effect for prosocial requests
will lead people to underestimate how likely others are to
comply with their unethical requests. The tendency of help-
seekers to underestimate the likelihood that their requests for
help will be granted has been explained by a differential
attention focus between help-seekers and potential helpers.
Flynn and Lake (Bohns) found that potential helpers are par-
ticularly attuned to the social costs of saying “no” or the
awkwardness and embarrassment of refusing someone’s
request. Yet help-seekers tend to ignore these face-saving
concerns (Bohns & Flynn, 2010; Sabini et al., 2001; Van
Boven, Loewenstein, & Dunning, 2005), attending instead to
other information, such as the instrumental costs a potential
helper would incur by agreeing to a request (DePaulo, 1983;
Greenberg, 1980; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). These different
foci in turn lead to divergent beliefs about compliance:
Potential helpers, focused on how awkward it would be to
say “no,” are quick to comply with a request for help, while
help-seekers, oblivious to the awkward position helpers are
in, think their requests for help are unlikely to be fulfilled.
We argue that instigators of unethical acts put actors in a
similarly awkward position of feeling unable to say “no” and
are also similarly oblivious to this fact. Much research has
shown that social pressure is a remarkably powerful force in
determining individuals’ decisions regarding whether or not
to commit unethical acts (Gino, Ayal, & Ariely, 2009; Gino
& Galinsky, 2012; Gunia, Wang, Huang, Wang, & Murnighan,
2012; Milgram, 1963; Monin, Sawyer, & Marquez, 2008;
Webber, Schimel, Martens, Hayes, & Faucher, 2013; see C.
Moore & Gino, 2013 for a recent review). Just as it is diffi-
cult to say “no” to someone who is asking for help, it is dif-
ficult to say “no” to someone who is pressuring one to engage
in an unethical act. Furthermore, instigators of unethical acts,
similar to help-seekers, are likely focused on other factors,
such as the potential consequences of the unethical act
(Jones, 1991; Paharia, Kassam, Greene, & Bazerman, 2009).
Instigators are therefore similarly likely to overlook the
social costs to actors of saying “no.” Once again, these dif-
ferent foci should lead to divergent beliefs about whether an
actor is likely to participate in an unethical deed: Focused on
the awkwardness of standing up against social pressure,
actors are likely to agree to go along with the unethical act,
while instigators, oblivious to the awkward position they
have put actors in, think it is unlikely that they will comply.
Overview of the Current Research
In the current research, we tested the hypothesis that instiga-
tors would underestimate their influence over actors’ unethi-
cal behavior and decisions, that is, actors’ decisions regarding
whether or not to commit unethical acts and how comfort-
able actors would feel choosing to “do the right thing.” The
current work extends the findings of Flynn and Lake (Bohns)
in which help-seekers underestimated their ability to get
potential helpers to comply with their requests for help.
Accordingly, we conducted a series of four studies to test
whether the original findings by Flynn and Lake (Bohns)
would replicate in an unethical domain. In our first two stud-
ies, we had student participants enlist other students to com-
mit actual unethical acts. In Study 1, participants enlisted
their fellow students to tell a “white lie,” and in Study 2 they
convinced them to vandalize a library book. In both studies,
participants made predictions about how effective they
would be at getting others to commit these ethical transgres-
sions, and we compared their predictions to how effective
they actually were at getting others to engage in these acts.
In our last two studies, we assigned participants to the
perspectives of “Actor,” “Instigator,” or “Neutral Observer”
in hypothetical unethical scenarios to test the egocentric
mechanism we have proposed for the underestimation of
influence effect. We have suggested that instigators fail to
fully appreciate the discomfort actors would experience by
going against another person’s suggestion to engage (or not
engage) in an unethical act. As a result, instigators should be
relatively insensitive to the effect their ethical suggestions
have on actors. To test this prediction, we assessed instiga-
tors’ beliefs about how uncomfortable actors would feel
engaging in various unethical acts following their unethical
or ethical advice and compared instigators’ ratings with the
discomfort actors themselves reported feeling after hearing
such advice.
Bohns et al. 3
In all four studies, we predicted that instigators would
underestimate the social pressure they imposed on others
through their simple suggestions to engage (or not engage) in
an unethical act. That is, instigators would not recognize how
easily they could convince others to engage in unethical acts
and the extent to which their suggestions would affect others’
feelings about potentially engaging in unethical acts.
Study 1: Getting Others to Tell a
“White Lie”
In Study 1, university students enlisted other students to
commit a “white lie.” Before soliciting their fellow students,
participants made a prediction about how easy it would be to
get them to do so. We compared participants’ beliefs about
their capacity to get others to lie with their actual effective-
ness at soliciting lies. This design provided us with an initial
test of our predictions in a realistic context using tangible
behavioral outcomes.
Method
Participants. Fifty-two “primary” participants (31 Female; 21
Male) were recruited through campus flyers and paid $15 to
solicit 198 “secondary” participants (104 Female; 94 Male).
Seven primary participants dropped out of the study after
reading the task instructions (before attempting to obtain any
signatures) and were paid $5 to complete only the pre-task
questionnaire.
Procedure. On arrival to the lab, our “primary” participants
were given a pre-task questionnaire. In this questionnaire,
participants read the complete task instructions before
answering any questions about the task. An excerpt is given
below:
“In this study, you will ask strangers (in person) to commit a
small lie. The lie you will be asking them to commit is to sign a
form stating that you have given them an introduction to a new
course that is being offered by a Professor at UW. You will not
in fact give an introduction to this course . . . ”
Participants were also provided with the script they were
to use when approaching people:
“Will you sign this? I’m supposed to tell students about a new
course and get them to sign this form stating that they’ve heard
about the course, but I really don’t want to do it.”
After learning the complete details of the task (no infor-
mation was withheld), primary participants predicted how
effective they would be at soliciting people to lie by provid-
ing a free-response answer to the question, “How many peo-
ple do you think you will have to approach before you get
three people to sign the signature sheet indicating that they’ve
heard about the course you didn’t tell them about?” This
question was adapted for our purposes from Flynn and Lake
(Bohns) (2008).1 To tap into their awareness of the social
pressure they would impose on the individuals they solicited,
primary participants were also asked to indicate on a 7-point
scale how comfortable the people they approached would
feel saying “no” to their request.
Participants were then provided with the following materi-
als for their task: three individual signature sheets stating, “My
signature provided below indicates that the person who
approached me gave me information about a new course at
UW”; a pen; a tally sheet on which to record the responses and
gender of each person they approached; debriefing forms for
the secondary participants; and a copy of the task instructions.
Participants were sent to designated areas of campus to com-
plete the task (to avoid multiple participants covering the same
areas). Secondary participants who provided a bogus signature
were subsequently told that they were part of a study and were
assured that they had not in fact done anything wrong. They
were then handed a debriefing sheet informing them about the
details of the study. After getting three people to sign the
forms, participants returned to the lab, completed a brief post-
task questionnaire, and were thanked and paid. To ensure that
all participants completed the task as instructed, participants
were also thoroughly debriefed on their return to the lab.
Results
We hypothesized that participants would underestimate their
own influence over others’ unethical behaviors by overesti-
mating the number of individuals they would have to
approach to get three individuals to commit this “white lie.”
One participant made a prediction of 300 people and was
excluded from all analyses as an outlier (56 SDs from the
Mean). The predictions made by the seven participants who
dropped out of the study after reading about the task were
significantly higher (M = 18.33, SD = 19.19) than partici-
pants who completed the task (excluding the outlier: M =
8.47, SD = 5.14), F(1, 48) = 8.28, p = .006, suggesting that
our results may be conservative.
Predicted versus actual compliance. Our primary prediction
that participants would overestimate the number of people
they would have to approach to get three people to agree to
lie was confirmed. We ran a repeated-measures ANOVA
comparing participants’ predictions of the number of people
they would have to approach (M = 8.47, SD = 5.14) to the
actual number of people they had to approach before three
people agreed to tell this “white lie” (M = 4.39, SD = 2.37)
and found a significant difference in predicted versus actual
compliance, F(1, 43) = 32.87, p < .001 (see Figure 1). In fact,
40 of the 44 participants who completed the task (90.9%)
underestimated the proportion of people they could convince
to lie, χ2(1, N = 44) = 29.46, p < .001. The fact that the pro-
portion of participants who committed this error was so
4 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin XX(X)
substantial suggests that this finding is not the result of a
statistical anomaly.
Social pressure mechanism. To explore the relationship
between participants’ lack of awareness of the discomfort
others’ would feel saying “no” to their requests and their
accuracy in predicting their influence over others’ unethical
behavior, we looked at the correlation between participants’
predictions of the number of people they would have to
approach to complete the task and their “comfortable saying
‘no’” ratings (M = 4.13, SD = 1.40, range = 1-7). These two
variables were highly positively correlated r(44) = .48, p <
.001, indicating that the more participants took into account
the discomfort others would feel refusing to lie (the lower
their ratings) the fewer people they believed they would need
to approach with their request. In other words, the more par-
ticipants recognized the social pressure inherent in their
request the more effective they (correctly) imagined they
would be at getting people to lie.
Discussion
As predicted, participants in Study 1 underestimated their
ability to get others to engage in an unethical act, committing
a white lie. However, it is possible that this “white lie” did
not seem particularly unethical to the individuals being asked
to commit it. The unethical act itself was relatively minor;
thus, it may have been a case of “no harm, no foul.”
Furthermore, secondary participants may have focused more
on the possibility that they were helping out a fellow student
in need than on the fact that they were doing so by commit-
ting a lie. Although we believe that many coerced unethical
acts may be committed under the guise of “helping someone
out,” we nonetheless felt that it was important to replicate
these findings with a more unmistakably unethical act in
Study 2.
Study 2: Getting Others to Vandalize a
Library Book
Study 2 follows the same experimental design as Study 1.
However, in this study, we used a more unequivocally uneth-
ical act: vandalizing a library book. University students once
again solicited their fellow students to engage in this unethi-
cal behavior. Before doing so, they made predictions about
how easy it would be to get other students to commit this act.
We compared participants’ beliefs about their capacity to get
others to deface a library book with their actual effectiveness
at getting others to do so.
Method
Twenty-five “primary” participants (23 Female; 2 Male)
were recruited through the psychology department partici-
pant pool’s recruitment website and paid $10 to solicit 108
“secondary” participants (48 Female; 60 Male). Two primary
participants dropped out of the study after reading the task
instructions (before attempting the vandalism task) and were
paid $5 to complete only the pre-task questionnaire.
On arrival to the lab, our “primary” participants were again
given a pre-task questionnaire. In this questionnaire, partici-
pants read the complete task instructions before answering any
questions about the task. An excerpt is given below:
“In this study, you will ask strangers (in person) to commit a
small act of vandalism. Specifically, you will ask them to write
the word “pickle” on a page of a library book . . . ”
Participants were also provided with the script they were
to use when approaching people:
“Hi, I’m trying to play a prank on someone, but they know my
handwriting. Will you just quickly write the word ‘pickle’ on
this page of this library book?”
After learning the complete details of the task (again, no
information was withheld), participants predicted how effec-
tive they would be at soliciting people to vandalize the book
by providing a free-response answer to the question, “How
many people do you think you will have to approach before
you get three people to agree to write the word ‘pickle’ in a
library book?” To tap into their awareness of the social pres-
sure they imposed on those they solicited, participants were
asked the same question asked of participants in Study 1. They
were asked to indicate on a 7-point scale how comfortable the
people they approached would feel refusing their request.
Participants were then provided with the following mate-
rials for their task: a hard-cover book with a library reference
number taped to the spine (the book was made to look identi-
cal to library books at the university campus library; see
Figure 2); a pen; a tally sheet on which to record the responses
and gender of each person they approached; debriefing forms
8.5
10.7
4.4 4.7
0
2
4
6
8
10
12
Study 1: White Lie Study 2: Vandalism
Number of people approached to
get 3 to agree
Predicted
Actual
Figure 1. Participants overestimated the number of people
they would have to approach to get three individuals to agree to
commit an unethical act (i.e., telling a white lie or committing an
act of vandalism) in Studies 1 and 2.
Bohns et al. 5
for the secondary participants; and a copy of the task instruc-
tions. Once again, participants were sent to designated areas
of campus to complete the task (to avoid multiple partici-
pants covering the same areas).
Secondary participants’ verbal responses to the request, as
recorded by the primary participants in a “comments” sec-
tion of their tally sheets, gave us confidence that this act was
indeed perceived as unethical by those who were asked to
engage in it. A number of participants stated that they would
not write in a library book, others asked to use pencil instead
of pen,2 some expressed concern about the possibility that
they or the primary participant would get into trouble, and
others explicitly referred to the act as vandalism (see Table 1
for selected quotes from secondary participants).
Individuals who agreed to write in the fake library book
were subsequently told that they were part of a study and
were assured that the book was not a library book and that
they had not in fact done anything wrong. They were then
handed a debriefing sheet informing them about the details
of the study. After getting three people to write on separate,
clean pages of the book (in pen; see Figure 2 for an example),
primary participants returned to the lab and were thanked
and paid. Once again, to ensure that all participants com-
pleted the task as instructed, primary participants were thor-
oughly debriefed on their return to the lab.
Results
We hypothesized that participants would underestimate their
own influence over others’ unethical behaviors by overestimat-
ing the number of individuals they would have to approach to
get three individuals to commit this small act of vandalism.3
Predicted versus actual compliance. Our primary prediction
that participants would overestimate the number of people
they would have to approach was confirmed. We ran a
repeated-measures ANOVA comparing participants’ predic-
tions of the number of people they would have to approach
(M = 10.73, SD = 6.58) to the actual number of people they
had to approach before three people agreed to vandalize the
library book (M = 4.70, SD = 2.53) and again found a sig-
nificant difference in predicted versus actual compliance,
F(1, 22) = 16.72, p < .001 (Figure 1). In this study, 20 of the
23 participants who completed the task (87.0%) underesti-
mated the proportion of people they could convince to van-
dalize the book, χ2(1, N = 23) = 12.57, p < .001.
Social pressure mechanism. We again examined the relation-
ship between participants’ “comfortable saying ‘no’” ratings
(M = 4.72, SD = 1.49, range = 1-7) and their predictions of
the number of people they would have to approach to com-
plete the task. These two variables were again positively cor-
related r(24) = .31, p = .11 (although not significantly),
indicating once again that the more participants took into
account the discomfort others would feel refusing their sug-
gestions, the fewer people they believed they would need to
approach to complete the task.
Discussion
The findings of Study 2 are highly consistent with those of
Study 1 (see Figure 1). Once again, participants underestimated
Figure 2. Fake library book vandalized by a secondary
participant in Study 2.
Table 1. A Sample of Secondary Participants’ Responses to the
Request to Vandalize a Library Book in Study 2, as Recorded by
Primary Participants.
Sure, this is a library book?
On a library book? Whoa. Yeah, okay, sure.
I don’t write on library books. Sorry about that.
So this is like vandalism? Okay, there, you got my autograph.
I wouldn’t write on a library book
Nahhh, it’s a library book
Why would I do that? It is a library book.
Is this from the library? I don’t think we should write in the book.
I gotta vandalize this pretty book?
Shouldn’t you use a pencil?
I’m not sure if I should . . . it’s a library book?
Are you sure? Um, okay.
Pickle? Are you sure? It’s a good book.
Let’s do it.
Yeah, why in pen though?
Are you sure I can write in this?
Don’t want to write in a library book
Not in pen in a library book
Only if I won’t get in trouble
I dunno, it’s a nice book
Can I write in pencil?
Great, what prank are you playing? I hope you don’t get into
sh&*% for this!
Is that a library book?
6 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin XX(X)
how easy it would be to get their fellow students to engage in
an unethical act—in this case, the act of defacing a library
book, a more unequivocally unethical deed. Furthermore, their
predictions of how difficult the task would be (i.e., how many
people they would have to approach to get three individuals to
write in the book) were once again correlated with their esti-
mates of how comfortable the people they approached would
feel saying “no” to them. (However, in this case the correlation
was marginally significant, likely due to the smaller sample
size in this study.)
Although these findings appear to provide strong support
for the prediction that individuals underestimate the extent to
which they can influence others’ willingness to engage in
unethical acts, these studies still leave open some alternative
explanations. For example, because to some extent these
studies required the primary participants to act (e.g., by pre-
tending they were supposed to be giving a marketing pitch
for a new course), primary participants may have underesti-
mated their acting abilities rather than their persuasive abili-
ties. Or, as research on the “illusion of transparency”
(Gilovich, Savitsky, & Medvec, 1998) might suggest, par-
ticipants may have imagined that their own discomfort with
the task would “leak out,” becoming apparent to those they
approached and thus undermining their ability to convince
people to engage in these unethical acts. In addition, although
we are convinced through our debriefings with participants
and the comments they recorded on their tally sheets that
they did indeed complete the task as described, we cannot be
absolutely sure that some participants did not simply imme-
diately inform the individuals they approached of the pur-
pose of the study. Another possibility is that participants may
have envisioned the task very differently beforehand and
found it much easier to select those individuals who were
likely to be compliant (e.g., those sitting around doing noth-
ing) when they actually went out to perform the task.
In addition, Studies 1 and 2 do not provide specific evi-
dence for the egocentric mechanism we have proposed
whereby instigators fail to account for the social pressure
they impose on actors. In these studies, we can only compare
primary participants’ “comfortable saying ‘no’” ratings with
their own predictions of compliance, rather than with sec-
ondary participants’ own ratings of discomfort. As a result,
we do not know whether primary participants were indeed
underestimating the social pressure they were imposing on
secondary participants, that is, the discomfort secondary par-
ticipants would have experienced by refusing their requests.
In Studies 3 and 4, we attempted to rectify these issues by
experimentally assigning participants to the perspectives of
“Actor” and “Instigator” (and “Neutral Observer,” in Study
4) in a series of hypothetical unethical scenarios. The hypo-
thetical nature of these studies gave us more experimental
control and therefore helped to eliminate some of the issues
we faced by sending participants out in the field. Furthermore,
the random assignment to perspective allowed us to compare
instigators’ beliefs about how uncomfortable their unethical
suggestions would make actors to actors’ own ratings of
discomfort.
Study 3: Manipulating Perspective in
Hypothetical Scenarios
In Study 3, we randomly assigned participants to the per-
spectives of “Actor” or “Instigator” in hypothetical unethical
scenarios to test the prediction that our findings in Studies 1
and 2 were the result of Instigators’ egocentric failure to rec-
ognize the discomfort experienced by Actors. We wanted to
(a) confirm that Actors do indeed find it less comfortable to
“do the right thing” when faced with an Instigator’s unethical
suggestion and (b) test our primary prediction that Instigators
are insensitive to the impact of their suggestions on the dis-
comfort actors feel doing the right thing, that is, the social
pressure inherent in their suggestions.
Method
One hundred seventy-one participants (90 Female; 81 Male)
were recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk and paid
$1.00 to complete an online survey.
The study was a 2 (Perspective: Actor, Instigator) × 2
(Suggestion: No Suggestion, Unethical Suggestion) between-
subjects design. Participants read four scenarios describing
ambiguously unethical situations: buying beer for underage
kids, giving someone prescription Valium, downloading a
movie illegally, and reading a colleague’s private Facebook
messages. See Appendix A for complete scenarios.
Perspective conditions. In the Actor condition, participants
read all four scenarios from the perspective of the person
deciding whether or not to engage in each unethical behav-
ior. For example, in the “Facebook” scenario, Actors are
seated at a colleague’s computer, and she has not logged out
of her Facebook account, which contains private messages.
In the Instigator condition, participants read the scenarios
from the perspective of a friend or co-worker who was part
of the situation, but not the final decision-maker. For exam-
ple, in the “Facebook” scenario, Instigators look over the
Actor’s shoulder but do not have access to the computer
themselves.
Suggestion conditions. In the unethical suggestion condition,
the Instigator suggests that the Actor go ahead and engage in
the unethical behavior. For example, in the “Facebook” sce-
nario, participants would read, “you lean over [your work
partner leans over] . . . and say[s], ‘Nice. Check out her mes-
sages . . . ’” In the no suggestion condition, this sentence is
omitted.
Social pressure dependent variable. After reading each sce-
nario, all participants answered the same social pressure ques-
tion our primary participants answered in Studies 1 and 2.
Bohns et al. 7
Specifically, participants assessed how comfortable actors
would feel doing the ethical thing in each scenario on a scale
of 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely), that is, “How comfortable
would someone feel refusing [trying not] to read their col-
league’s messages in this situation?” In the unethical sugges-
tion condition, this meant that actors would be going against
the Instigator’s suggestion to engage in an unethical act,
which is essentially comparable to a secondary participant
saying “no” to a primary participant in Studies 1 and 2.
Results
We tested our hypothesis with a 2 (Perspective: Actor,
Instigator) × 2 (Suggestion: Unethical Suggestion, No
Suggestion) × 4 (Individual Scenarios) mixed-model
ANOVA. The content of the scenarios did not affect the pat-
tern of results, F(1, 167) < 1.6, so our findings are reported
collapsed across scenarios.
Main effects. There was an overall main effect of Perspective,
F(1, 167) = 9.61, p = .002, indicating that participants in the
Actor condition (M = 5.23, SD = 1.16) reported feeling more
comfortable doing the ethically right thing overall than partici-
pants in the Instigator condition (M = 4.68, SD = 1.08) thought
Actors would feel. This finding is consistent with the “myth of
self-interest” (Miller, 1999) from the Instigator’s perspective
and a self-serving bias (Heider, 1958) from the Actor’s per-
spective. There was also an overall main effect of Suggestion,
indicating, not surprisingly, that participants thought the Actor
would feel more comfortable doing the ethically right thing
when the Instigator said nothing (M = 5.31, SD = 1.10) than
when the Instigator suggested doing the unethical thing (M =
4.67, SD = 1.16), F(1, 169) = 13.92, p < .001.
Perspective × Suggestion interaction. As predicted, there was a
significant interaction of Perspective × Suggestion on how
comfortable participants thought someone would feel
doing the ethically right thing, F(1, 167) = 3.98, p = .05
(see Figure 3). Participants in the Actor perspective felt sig-
nificantly less comfortable doing the ethically right thing
when the Instigator made an unethical suggestion (M = 4.75,
SD = 1.15) than when no suggestion was made (M = 5.65,
SD = 1.01), F(1, 99) = 17.66, p < .001. However, participants
in the Instigator perspective failed to recognize the effect
their unethical suggestion would have on the Actor. Instiga-
tor’s ratings of comfort did not vary between the unethical
suggestion (M = 4.56, SD = 1.11) and no suggestion (M =
4.79, SD = 1.05) conditions, F(1, 68) < 1.
Discussion
These findings support an egocentric explanation for our
findings in Studies 1 and 2. Participants who were randomly
assigned to the perspective of Actor felt less comfortable
“doing the right thing” across a variety of hypothetical
unethical scenarios when another person—an Instigator—
suggested that they do the unethical thing. However, partici-
pants who were randomly assigned to the perspective of
Instigator did not pick up on this difference, that is, they did
not recognize the effect that their unethical suggestion had
on Actors compared with a condition in which they said
nothing.
While these findings are consistent with our theory, there
are a few noteworthy shortcomings of this study. First, we
did not include a Neutral Observer condition, which would
help us to identify the direction of the effect. Accordingly, in
Study 4, we added a Neutral Observer condition.
Second, in this study, we compared an unethical sugges-
tion condition with a no suggestion condition. In the condi-
tion in which no suggestion was offered, participants’
estimates of how comfortable someone would feel “doing
the right thing” would have been based purely on their pre-
conceptions about how comfortable someone would feel
doing the right thing in general, rather than their theories
about how social influence affects their own or others’ deci-
sions. Thus, in Study 4, we contrasted an unethical advice
condition to an ethical advice condition so that both condi-
tions involved social pressure, but in opposing directions.
Third, some of the scenarios in Study 3 implicated both
the Instigator and the Actor; that is, the Instigator was not
merely advising the Actor but acting jointly with him or her.
However, even individuals who are simply advising an Actor
on an ethical dilemma without facing any ramifications of
the decision for themselves should underestimate the power
of their opinion to influence the Actor. Furthermore, in the
Study 3 scenarios, Actors may have felt in some way that
they were helping the Instigator (e.g., by going along with
what the Instigator wanted to do), which would have made
2
2.5
3
3.5
4
4.5
5
5.5
6
Actor Instigator
How comfortable would the actor feel
doing the ethical thin g?
Perspective Condition
No Advice
Unethical Advice
Figure 3. How comfortable an actor would feel making ethical
decisions (i.e., choosing not to buy children alcohol, give a
friend a prescription drug, download a movie illegally, or read
a colleague’s private messages) by perspective condition and
whether unethical advice or no advice was given in Study 3.
8 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin XX(X)
our scenarios too similar to the scenarios used by Flynn and
Lake (Bohns; 2008; Studies 4 and 5). Thus, we created new
ethical dilemma scenarios for Study 4 that would affect and
implicate only the Actor, eliminating the possibility that
Actors would reinterpret their behavior as a prosocial act.
Study 4: Manipulating Perspective in
Hypothetical Scenarios With a Neutral
Observer Condition
In Study 4, we attempted to replicate our findings from Study
3 as well as extend them in three primary ways. First, we
added a Neutral Observer perspective condition. Second, we
included two social influence conditions—an unethical
advice condition, and an ethical advice condition—rather
than comparing a condition in which an Actor received
unethical advice to a more ambiguous condition in which he
or she received no advice. Third, we created a new set of
scenarios in which the Instigators were not complicit in the
unethical acts, and therefore bore no responsibility nor
reaped rewards for the acts. In these scenarios, Instigators
simply gave Actors advice about an ethical dilemma Actors
were facing alone. Once again, participants were assigned to
different perspectives and asked to read a series of vignettes.
In this case, they were assigned to one of three perspectives:
“Actor,” “Instigator,” or “Neutral Observer.”
Method
One hundred fifty-five participants were recruited through
Amazon Mechanical Turk and paid $1.00 to complete an
online survey.
The study was a 3 (Perspective: Actor, Instigator, Neutral
Observer) × 2 (Advice: Ethical Advice, Unethical Advice)
between-subjects design. Participants once again read four
scenarios describing ambiguously unethical situations; how-
ever, in this case, the unethical decisions affected only the
Actor, not the Instigator. The scenarios involved calling in sick
to work to go to a baseball game, taking home office supplies
(reams of paper) for personal use, freelancing for a corporate
competitor, and putting personal dinners on a professional
expense report. The scenarios were inspired by Wiltermuth
and Flynn’s (2013) morally ambiguous work dilemmas, and
the complete scenarios can be found in Appendix B.
Perspective conditions. As in Study 3, participants in the Actor
condition read all four scenarios from the perspective of the
person deciding whether or not to engage in each unethical
behavior. For example, in the “Calling in Sick to Work” sce-
nario, Actors are offered last-minute tickets to a baseball game
and must decide whether to call in sick the next day to attend.
In the Instigator condition, participants once again read the
scenarios from the perspective of a friend or co-worker who is
listening to the Actor’s dilemma but is uninvolved in the
situation and unaffected by the Actor’s decision. For example,
in the “Calling in Sick to Work” scenario, Instigators are sim-
ply having drinks with the Actor after work, and the Actor tells
the Instigator about his or her dilemma regarding whether to
call in sick. In the Neutral Observer condition, participants
simply imagine each of the scenarios happening to two
unknown individuals. Neutral Observers have no role in the
situation themselves. For example, they are asked to imagine
that someone is faced with the dilemma of deciding whether to
call in sick from work, and that this person has shared this
dilemma with a co-worker over drinks.
Advice conditions. We had an unethical advice condition and an
ethical advice condition. In the unethical advice condition, the
Instigator suggests that the Actor go ahead and engage in the
unethical behavior. For example, in the “Calling in Sick to
Work” scenario, the Instigator says, “Sure, if it was me, I
would totally do that.” In the ethical advice condition, the
Instigator suggests that the Actor not engage in the unethical
behavior. For example, in this scenario, the Instigator says, “I
don’t know. If it was me, I probably wouldn’t do that.”
Social pressure dependent variable. After reading each sce-
nario, participants answered the same social pressure ques-
tion participants responded to in Studies 1, 2, and 3. However,
in this case, the question involved how comfortable Actors
would feel doing the unethical thing, rather than the ethical
thing. That is, after reading each scenario, participants
answered a question on a 7-point scale about how comfort-
able they thought actors would feel doing the unethical thing,
for example, “How comfortable would someone feel calling
in sick to take the day off from work?”4
Results
We tested our hypothesis with a 3 (Perspective: Actor,
Instigator, Neutral Observer) × 2(Advice: Unethical, Ethical)
× 4 (Individual Scenarios) mixed-model ANOVA. The con-
tent of the scenarios once again did not affect the pattern of
results, F(1, 149) < 1, so our findings are reported collapsed
across scenarios.
Main effects. There was an overall main effect of Perspective,
F(1, 149) = 24.69, p < .001, indicating that participants in the
Actor condition (M = 2.84, SD = 1.24) reported feeling less
comfortable engaging in unethical acts overall than partici-
pants in the Neutral Observer condition, M = 3.65, SD = .89,
F(1, 108) = 15.93, p < .001, and the Instigator condition, M =
4.20, SD = .78, F(1, 88) = 38.40, p < .001, thought that
Actors would feel. This finding is again consistent with the
“myth of self-interest” (Miller, 1999) from the Neutral
Observer’s and Instigator’s perspectives and a self-serving
bias (Heider, 1958) from the Actor’s perspective. Interest-
ingly, Instigators thought Actors would feel significantly
more comfortable engaging in unethical acts than did
Bohns et al. 9
Neutral Observers, F(1, 112) = 11.27, p = .001, suggesting
that there is something unique about the “instigator” perspec-
tive that makes it different from the “neutral observer” per-
spective. There were no main effects of Advice condition.
Perspective × Advice interaction. As predicted, there was a sig-
nificant interaction of Perspective × Advice on how comfort-
able participants thought someone would feel engaging in
unethical acts, F(1, 149) = 3.63, p = .03 (see Figure 4). Par-
ticipants in the Actor perspective reported feeling more com-
fortable doing unethical things when the instigator gave
them unethical advice (M = 3.13, SD = 1.17) than when the
instigator gave ethical advice (M = 2.38, SD = 1.25), F(1,41) =
3.87, p = .056. However, participants in the Instigator per-
spective once again failed to recognize the effect their advice
would have on the Actor. Their ratings of comfort did not
vary between the unethical advice (M = 4.08, SD = .65) and
ethical advice (M = 4.32, SD = .89) conditions, F(1, 44) =
1.08, p = .30. Neutral Observers’ ratings also did not vary
between the unethical advice (M = 3.55) and ethical advice
(M = 3.72) conditions, F(1, 66) = .59, p = .44.
Discussion
We replicated our findings from Study 4 using ethical dilem-
mas that affected the Actor only. Once again, Actors were
influenced by the advice they received from Instigators, but
Instigators failed to recognize the power of their advice to
influence Actors. Consistent with previous research (e.g.,
Bohns & Flynn, 2010; Sabini et al., 2001; Van Boven et al.,
2005), Neutral Observers also failed to recognize the extent
to which Actors were affected by social pressure. These find-
ings provide further evidence for an egocentric explanation
of our findings in Studies 1 and 2.
Notably, our main effects analyses revealed differences in
the judgments of Neutral Observers and Instigators, suggest-
ing that these are different perspectives that should be studied
independently. However, because neither group appreciated
the role of social influence, the two perspectives appear to be
limited by similar cognitive biases or constraints.
General Discussion
In four studies, we found that instigators failed to recognize
their influence over actors, that is, the social pressure they
levied on actors through simple unethical suggestions. In
Studies 1 and 2, participants underestimated how easy it
would be to get their fellow students to engage in unethical
acts (telling a “white lie” and vandalizing a library book).
Not only were participants’ predictions skewed toward
underestimation in these studies, but more than 90% of our
sample in Study 1 and 87% in Study 2 erred in this direction.
In Studies 3 and 4, participants randomly assigned to the role
of “actor” felt significantly less comfortable doing the “right
thing” (more comfortable doing the “wrong thing” in Study
4) in a series of hypothetical ethical dilemmas if an instigator
had given them unethical advice. However, participants
assigned to the role of “instigator” did not recognize the
influence their unethical suggestions had on actors’ feelings
about these unethical acts.
Theoretical Contributions
Although social psychology has mined the differing perspec-
tives of “actors” and “observers,” there is very little, if any,
research on the psychology of “instigators” of others’ behavior,
particularly their unethical behavior. Such research is impor-
tant because in many situations we are not simply passive
observers of others’ behavior but are actually inciters or instiga-
tors of their behavior. That is, we are active participants in a
situation, attempting to explain and predict others’ behavior
while we are simultaneously influencing it (Neisser, 1980). The
current work takes a step toward closing this knowledge gap by
examining active participants in social situations.
The current work also suggests a broader interpretation of
the original Flynn and Lake (Bohns) (2008) effect by extend-
ing the original findings to the realm of unethical behavior. It
appears that we not only underestimate the likelihood that
others will help us. Rather, we underestimate the extent to
which we can influence others to engage in a variety of
behaviors with a simple request. Taken together, the current
findings and the original Flynn and Lake (Bohns) findings
suggest that we may underestimate the influence we have
over others more generally.
The possibility that we underestimate our influence over
others is surprising in light of research on the “illusion of
control” (Langer, 1975), overconfidence (Alicke & Govorun,
2005; Dunning, Heath, & Suls, 2004; D. A. Moore & Healy,
2008), and magical thinking (Pronin, Wegner, McCarthy, &
1.5
2
2.5
3
3.5
4
4.5
Actor Neutral Observer Instigator
How comfortable would the actor feel committing the
unethical act?
Perspective Condition
Unethical Advice
Ethical Advice
Figure 4. How comfortable an actor would feel making unethical
decisions (i.e., calling in sick to go to a baseball game, taking
company supplies home, freelancing for a corporate competitor,
or expensing personal dinners) by perspective condition and
whether unethical advice or ethical advice was given in Study 4.
10 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin XX(X)
Rodriguez, 2006), all of which have demonstrated a ten-
dency to overestimate one’s influence in a variety of situa-
tions. These seemingly conflicting findings may represent
different types of attribution processes. Hamilton (1980)
makes a distinction between causal attributions, which seek
to answer the question, “Did the behavior I engaged in lead
to the behavior someone else subsequently engaged in?” and
attributions of responsibility, which seek to answer the ques-
tion, “Could the individual have done otherwise?” That is, a
preceding behavior by one person may indeed “pull for” a
subsequent behavior by another person, but if the latter per-
son can choose to do something else, he or she is ultimately
responsible for his or her behavior (see Bohns & Flynn, 2013
for a more detailed discussion).
The obvious difference between the outcomes typically
used in illusion of control and overconfidence paradigms (e.g.,
lottery tickets, IQ tests) and actors’ behaviors in our studies is
that people have intentionality. When we try to determine
whether we influenced a physical outcome (a dice roll, the
changing of a light), we need only to answer Hamilton’s first
question about causality. On the other hand, when determining
whether or not we influenced another person’s behavior, con-
sidering contingency and our own intentions alone cannot pro-
vide a satisfactory answer. To understand another person’s
behavior, we also need to consider the other person’s inten-
tions and answer Hamilton’s second question regarding
responsibility. Such a determination requires perspective-tak-
ing, a process at which people are notoriously flawed (Epley,
Keysar, Van Boven, & Gilovich, 2004)
Limitations and Future Directions
The current studies provide compelling evidence that people
underestimate the extent to which their suggestions affect
others’ ethical behaviors and decisions. However, exactly
what specific social pressure information instigators are
overlooking and actors are attending to is less clear. Actors
may be willing to “bend the rules” for other people for many
different reasons. An instigator’s unethical suggestion may
establish a descriptive norm (Cialdini, 2007), actors may
reinterpret an unethical act as a prosocial act in which they
are helping the instigator out, or actors may simply hope to
stay in the good graces of the in-group. Any of these poten-
tial motivations may be lost on instigators. Future research
may help to disentangle these various alternatives.
The possibility that actors reinterpret or reframe an unethi-
cal act as a prosocial act, in particular, may have played a role
in a few of the scenarios in the current work. In general, people
are motivated to see their behaviors in a positive light, and as
a result, they will often reinterpret an unethical behavior in
prosocial terms (Gino, Ayal, & Ariely, in press; Gino & Pierce,
2010; Shalvi, Dana, Handgraaf, & De Dreu, 2011; Wiltermuth,
2011). Although this may have been a concern in Studies 1 and
3 in the current research, we believe that Studies 2 and 4
address this issue. While the unethical act was relatively
ambiguous and negligible in Study 1, many of the individuals
who were approached with the vandalism task in Study 2 com-
mented explicitly about the fact that the task was unethical.
Furthermore, while some of the scenarios in Study 3 involved
joint-action and could therefore trigger a motivation for insti-
gators to reframe the behavior so as not to implicate them-
selves, in Study 4, instigators were merely advising actors who
would be engaging in the behavior independently and with no
costs or benefits to the instigator. Yet, as mentioned earlier,
many unethical behaviors are in fact conducted under the
guise of helping someone out; so it may be worthwhile in
future research to tease apart instigators’ potential neglect of
the prosocial reframing actors may engage in to cope with the
unethical behaviors they may enact under pressure.
On the other hand, instigators may also have been moti-
vated to see their behavior in a more positive light, which
may have influenced their judgments. Instigators may not
want to believe that someone else’s unethical behavior is
attributable to something they said or did and may therefore
rationalize that their influence over the actor was likely to be
minimal. However, if this possibility were true, we would
have expected to find a difference between the perspectives
of instigators, who have a stake in the unethical act, and neu-
tral observers, who do not, in Study 4. Yet both neutral
observers and instigators failed to appreciate the power of
social pressure to influence actors’ behaviors.
Another potential area for future research is an explora-
tion of the cultural antecedents of the tendency to discount
social pressure and norms as explanations for people’s
behavior. This tendency may be especially prevalent in rel-
atively individualistic cultures. Members of individualistic
cultures are believed to act largely of their own volition—
doing something only if it is consistent with their own per-
sonal wishes—rather than out of a sense of obligation or
social pressure (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis,
1995). Conversely, in collectivistic cultures, the needs and
goals of the group are supposed to usurp individual desires
and personal interests (Markus & Kitayama, 1991).
Consequently, members of collectivistic cultures may be
more aware of how social pressures shape their own and
others’ behavior.
Cross-cultural research supports this prediction. When
Flynn and Lake’s (Bohns) (2008) studies were replicated in a
relatively individualistic culture, the United States, and a
relatively collectivistic culture, China, the predictions of
compliance made by Chinese help-seekers were more cali-
brated than those made by the American participants (Bohns
et al., 2011). Although the underestimation effect was still
present in both groups, it was attenuated in the more collec-
tivistic culture. Furthermore, Mazar and Aggarwal (2011)
found that individuals who rated higher in collectivism were
more likely to attribute unethical acts to the social context
rather than to their own personal will. Together, this research
suggests that the current findings may also be attenuated in a
more collectivistic culture.
Bohns et al. 11
Conclusion
Although it is common, particularly in individualistic cul-
tures, to assume that the ethical decisions people make are
the product of some unwavering personal integrity (or lack
thereof), our research and others’ (e.g., Gino et al., 2009;
Gino & Galinsky, 2012; C. Moore & Gino, 2013) reveal the
large role the social context plays in such decisions. Yet, the
surprising aspect of our research is not the finding that peo-
ple will agree to tell a small lie when asked, or feel more
comfortable engaging in an unethical behavior when a friend
condones it. The truly startling finding is the lack of aware-
ness people appear to have of this tendency when they are in
a position to influence someone else’s ethical behavior.
Overall, the current research suggests that we may not recog-
nize the extent to which our words and actions affect others’
ethical behavior and decisions. In an era where auditing
agencies communicate openly with the companies they audit
(Morgenson, 2008), the social dynamics of trading rooms
can foster shockingly unethical risky shifts (McLean &
Elkind, 2003), and cyber-bullying can have unimaginably
dire consequences (Maag, 2007), the question of whether we
as individuals understand the extent to which we contribute
to a social norm, a collective value system, or simply another
individual’s assessment of the appropriate course of action in
a given situation has important real-world implications.
Appendix A
Study 3 Scenarios by Perspective With Unethical Advice Condition in Brackets
CONDITION SCENARIO
BUYING BEER FOR UNDERAGE KIDS
Actor [Unethical
Suggestion]
Imagine that you and a friend are running into the liquor store to buy some beer to bring to a party. A couple of
kids who look like they’re in college are standing in the parking lot across from the liquor store. You park, get
out of the car, and start walking towards the liquor store. As you pass the college kids, one of them politely
gets your attention, saying, “Excuse me? We really hate that we have to ask people this, but we’re 20-years
old almost 21, I swear!-- and so we can’t buy alcohol. If we give you some money, would you mind picking up a
6-pack of beer for us?” [Your friend grins and says to you, “Let’s help them out.”]
Instigator
[Unethical
Suggestion]
Imagine that you and a friend are running into the liquor store to buy some beer to bring to a party. A couple of
kids who look like they’re in college are standing in the parking lot across from the liquor store. You park, get
out of the car, and start walking toward the liquor store. As you pass the college kids, one of them politely gets
your friend’s attention, saying, “Excuse me? We really hate that we have to ask people this, but we’re 20-years
old—almost 21, I swear!—and so we can’t buy alcohol. If we give you some money, would you mind picking up a
6-pack of beer for us?” [You grin and say to your friend, “Let’s help them out.”]
GIVING A FRIEND PRESCRIPTION VALIUM
Actor [Unethical
Suggestion]
Imagine that you previously went through a rough period in your life during which you experienced anxiety and panic
attacks. To cope, you wound up getting a prescription for Valium, an anti-anxiety drug, from your doctor. However,
you only took a few pills, and now months later, you have a pretty full prescription bottle of Valium sitting in your
medicine cabinet. Recently, a good friend of yours has been going through her own rough time and has similarly been
struggling with anxiety attacks. Unfortunately, your friend doesn’t have medical insurance and would have to pay a
fee in order to see a doctor or therapist. [A mutual friend of yours calls you up and asks if you would be
willing to give a few of your Valium pills to the friend who is having a rough time.]
Instigator
[Unethical
Suggestion]
Imagine that a friend of yours previously went through a rough period in her life during which she experienced
anxiety and panic attacks. To cope, she wound up getting a prescription for Valium, an anti-anxiety drug, from
her doctor. However, she only took a few pills, and now months later, she has a pretty full prescription bottle
of Valium sitting in her medicine cabinet. Recently, a mutual friend of both of yours has been going through her
own rough time and has similarly been struggling with anxiety attacks. Unfortunately, this second friend doesn’t
have medical insurance and would have to pay a fee in order to see a doctor or therapist. [You call your
friend with the Valium up and ask if she would be willing to give a few of her pills to your friend
who is having a rough time.]
ILLEGALLY DOWNLOADING A MOVIE
Actor [Unethical
Suggestion]
Imagine that you and your roommate are having some friends over for a movie night. You are hosting because you
have a terrific projector that connects to your computer and a screen for projecting the movie. It makes your
apartment feel like a movie theater! You selected a movie in advance that everyone wanted to see. It’s a movie
that is available to rent through iTunes and Netflix, but alternatively, you could just download it for free through
a not-quite-legal file-sharing site. [Your roommate has made it clear that he thinks it’s stupid to pay a
movie you can get for free.]
(continued)
12 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin XX(X)
CONDITION SCENARIO
Instigator
[Unethical
Suggestion]
Imagine that you and your roommate are having some friends over for a movie night. You are hosting because
your roommate has a terrific projector that connects to his computer and a screen for projecting the movie.
It makes your apartment feel like a movie theater! Your roommate selected a movie in advance that everyone
wanted to see. It’s a movie that is available to rent through iTunes and Netflix, but alternatively, it can just be
downloaded for free through a not-quite-legal file-sharing site. [You have made it clear to your roommate
that you think it’s stupid to pay for a movie you can get for free.]
READING A COLLEAGUE’S PRIVATE MESSAGES
Actor [Unethical
Suggestion]
You and a colleague are working on a project at your desk. You realize the project would go faster if you both
were able to work on computers simultaneously. Unfortunately, your desks are far apart in the office and you
both have immobile desktop computers. Another colleague usually sits right next to you, but she is away from
her desk for a couple of hours. You decide to let your work partner use your computer while you move over
to your mutual colleague’s desk. You open up the internet browser on your colleague’s computer and notice
that she is still logged into Facebook. Recently, there have been rumors about this colleague’s personal life
that you could probably confirm or deny simply by peaking at her Facebook messages. [Your work partner
looks over your shoulder, grins, and says, “Nice. Check out her messages, and let’s see if the
rumors are true.”]
Instigator
[Unethical
Suggestion]
You and a colleague are working on a project at his desk. You realize the project would go faster if you both
were able to work on computers simultaneously. Unfortunately, your desks are far apart in the office and you
both have immobile desktop computers. Another colleague usually sits right next to your work partner, but she
is away from her desk for a couple of hours. Your work partner decides to let you use his computer while he
moves over to your mutual colleague’s desk. He opens up the internet browser on your colleague’s computer
and notices that she is still logged into Facebook. Recently, there have been rumors about this colleague’s
personal life that you could probably confirm or deny simply by peaking at her Facebook messages. [You look
over your work partner’s shoulder, grin, and say, “Nice. Check out her messages, and let’s see if
the rumors are true.”]
CONDITION SCENARIO
CALLING IN SICK TO GO TO A BASEBALL GAME
Actor [Unethical/
Ethical Suggestion]
Imagine that you were just offered tickets to a baseball game that you really want to go to. The
problem is that the game is tomorrow afternoon, and it’s too late to ask your boss to take the
day off. While you’re out having drinks with a co-worker after work, you tell your co-worker that
you’re considering calling in sick the next day so you can go to the baseball game. Your co-worker
says, [“Sure, If it was me, I would totally do that.”/”I don’t know. If it was me, I probably
wouldn’t do that.”]
Instigator [Unethical/
Ethical Suggestion]
Imagine that one of your co-workers was just offered tickets to a baseball game that he or she really
wants to go to. The problem is that the game is tomorrow afternoon, and it’s too late for your co-
worker to ask his or her boss to take the day off. While you’re out having drinks with this person after
work, he or she tells you that he or she is considering calling in sick the next day to go to the baseball
game. You say, [“Sure, If it was me, I would totally do that.”/”I don’t know. If it was me, I
probably wouldn’t do that.”]
Neutral Observer
[Unethical/ Ethical
Suggestion]
Imagine that someone was just offered tickets to a baseball game that he or she really wants to go to. The
problem is that the game is the following afternoon, and it’s too late for this individual to ask his or her
boss to take the day off. While this person is out having drinks with a co-worker after work, he or she
tells the co-worker that he or she is considering calling in sick the next day to go to the baseball game.
The person’s co-worker says, [“Sure, If it was me, I would totally do that.”/”I don’t know. If it
was me, I probably wouldn’t do that.”]
Appendix B
Study 4 Scenarios by Perspective With Unethical Advice/Ethical Advice Conditions in Brackets
Appendix (continued)
(continued)
Bohns et al. 13
CONDITION SCENARIO
TAKING OFFICE SUPPLIES HOME FOR PERSONAL USE
Actor [Unethical/
Ethical Suggestion]
Imagine that you are out of printer paper at home. The supply closest at work is full of reams of paper,
but employees are not supposed to use office supplies for personal purposes. As you are taking a look
at what is in the supply closet, one of your co-workers walks in. You ask what your co-worker thinks
about the possibility of your taking some printer paper home for yourself. Your co-worker says, [“I
think that would be fine.”/”I don’t think it’s such a good idea.”]
Instigator [Unethical/
Ethical Suggestion]
Imagine that your co-worker is out of printer paper at home. The supply closest at work is full of reams
of paper, but employees are not supposed to use office supplies for personal purposes. As this person is
taking a look at what is in the supply closet, you walk in. Your co-worker asks you what you think about
the possibility of him or her taking some printer paper home for personal use. You say, [“I think that
would be fine.”/”I don’t think it’s such a good idea.”]
Neutral Observer
[Unethical/ Ethical
Suggestion]
Imagine that someone is out of printer paper at home. This person’s supply closest at work is full of reams
of paper, but employees are not supposed to use office supplies for personal purposes. As this individual
takes a look at what is in the supply closet, a co-worker walks in. The person asks his or her co-worker
what the co-worker thinks about the possibility of taking some printer paper home for personal use.
The co-worker says, [“I think that would be fine.”/”I don’t think it’s such a good idea.”]
FREELANCING FOR A CORPORATE COMPETITOR
Actor [Unethical/
Ethical Suggestion]
Imagine that you are working at a corporation with a clear policy against employees working for potential
competitors on the side. However, your friend just began running a start-up that may one day pose
a competition to your firm, and this friend has asked you as a favor whether you would be willing to
consult for the start-up for a few hours a week. You mention this opportunity to one of your colleagues
at work who says, [“If you want my advice, I’d say just go ahead and do it.”/”If you want my
advice, I’d say you probably shouldn’t do it.”]
Instigator [Unethical/
Ethical Suggestion]
Imagine that you are working at a corporation with a clear policy against employees working for potential
competitors on the side. However, your co-worker’s friend just began running a start-up that may
one day pose a competition to your firm, and this person’s friend has asked as a favor whether your
co-worker would be willing to consult for the start-up for a few hours a week. When your co-worker
mentions this opportunity to you, you say, [“If you want my advice, I’d say just go ahead and do
it.”/”If you want my advice, I’d say you probably shouldn’t do it.”]
Neutral Observer
[Unethical/ Ethical
Suggestion]
Imagine a person who is working at a corporation with a clear policy against employees working for
potential competitors on the side. However, this person’s friend just began running a start-up that may
one day pose a competition to his or her firm, and this person’s friend has asked as a favor whether this
person would be willing to consult for the start-up for a few hours a week. This individual is considering
whether he or she should take this opportunity on the side. He or she mentions this opportunity to one
of his or her colleagues at work who says, [“If you want my advice, I’d say just go ahead and do
it.”/”If you want my advice, I’d say you probably shouldn’t do it.”]
EXPENSING PERSONAL DINNERS
Actor [Unethical/
Ethical Suggestion]
Imagine that you are filling out your expense report from a conference you just attended. Since the
conference was in Hawaii, you brought your spouse along to make it a vacation as well. You aren’t
supposed to expense non-business-related dinners, but you are considering putting just a couple of the
romantic dinners you spent with your spouse down on your expense form. No one would be able to
tell. You run the idea by a close friend who says, [“Why not? That seems okay to me.”/”I don’t
know. That seems pretty wrong to me.”]
Instigator [Unethical/
Ethical Suggestion]
Imagine that a close friend of yours is filling out his or her expense report from a conference he or she
just attended. Since the conference was in Hawaii, this person brought his or her spouse along to make
it a vacation as well. Your friend isn’t supposed to expense non-business-related dinners, but he or she
is considering putting just a couple of the romantic dinners he or she spent with his or her spouse down
on the expense form. No one would be able to tell. Your friend runs this idea by you, and you say,
[“Why not? That seems okay to me.”/”I don’t know. That seems pretty wrong to me.”]
Neutral Observer
[Unethical/ Ethical
Suggestion]
Imagine someone is filling out his or her expense report from a conference this person just attended.
Since the conference was in Hawaii, this person brought his or her spouse along to make it a vacation as
well. He or she isn’t supposed to expense non-business-related dinners, but is considering putting just a
couple of the romantic dinners spent with his or her spouse down on the expense form. No one would
be able to tell. The person runs the idea by a close friend who says, [“Why not? That seems okay to
me.”/”I don’t know. That seems pretty wrong to me.”]
Appendix (continued)
14 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin XX(X)
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
Notes
1. Flynn and Lake (Bohns) had participants obtain help from one,
three, or five people, depending on the study, and this number
did not affect their pattern of results across studies. To keep our
study within a reasonable time limit while obtaining enough
data to accurately assess actual compliance, we decided to use
the intermediate value from Flynn and Lake (Bohns)’s paper and
require participants to get three signatures.
2. Secondary participants who asked to write in pencil were told
that they had to write with the participant’s pen.
3. The number of participants who dropped out of this study (two
participants) was too small to compare their predictions to the
predictions of participants who completed the study.
4. This question made more logical sense in the context of the
revised scenarios than a question about, for example, how com-
fortable someone would feel not calling in sick to take the day
off from work.
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In four studies employing multiple manipulations of psychological closeness, we found that feeling connected to another individual who engages in selfish or dishonest behavior leads people to behave more selfishly and less ethically themselves. In addition, psychologically connecting with a scoundrel led to greater moral disengagement. We also establish that vicarious justification is the mechanism explaining this effect: When participants felt psychologically close to someone who had behaved selfishly, they were more likely to consider the behavior to be less shame-worthy and less unethical; it was these lenient judgments that then led them to act more unethically themselves. These vicarious effects were moderated by whether the miscreant was identified With a photograph and by the type of behavior. Importantly, we establish a general process of vicariousness: psychological closeness produced both vicarious generosity and selfishness depending on the behavior of the person one feels psychologically connected to. These findings suggest an irony of psychological closeness: it can create distance from one's own moral compass.
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We propose that power increases how severely people punish transgressors. Further, we argue that this greater severity stems from an increased sense of moral clarity instilled by the psychological experience of power. We investigate the linkages among power, moral clarity, and punishment across multiple studies. Individuals with an increased sense of power advocated more severe punishments for transgressors than did those with a diminished sense of power. Further, moral clarity mediated the link between power and severity of punishment. We discuss the implications of these findings for managers in organizations and researchers interested in punitive reactions to moral transgressions.