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Exposure to money can lead to unethical actions, University of Utah study finds

Published: Thursday, June 13 2013 4:35 p.m. MDT

Researchers with the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah performed four studies on 324 participants and found that viewing money-related words or images increased the likelihood of ethically questionable decisions.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A new study by University of Utah researchers lends support to the old adage that money is the root of all evil, or at least unethical decision-making.

Researchers with the David Eccles School of Business performed four studies on 324 participants and found that viewing money-related words or images increased the likelihood of ethically questionable decisions.

"It’s part of a body of research showing that very subtle exposure to things in our environment may have an effect on our decisions and our behavior without us even realizing it," said Kristin Smith-Crowe, an associate professor of management and one of the study's authors. "We do have this vulnerability that we need to be aware of and sort of be conscious about."

Study participants were asked to perform a word or image activity before answering how they would respond in a series of ethical scenarios, such as lying to make more money or hiring a candidate with insider information on a competitor.

Participants who were "primed" to the concept of money through words and images affiliated with business and finances were then found to be more likely to choose less ethical options than those who received a neutrally worded activity.

Smith-Crowe said she and her team hypothesized that the priming would have an effect on ethical decisions, but they were still surprised at how significant the differences were. She said in all four studies, the gap between the neutral-wording group and the money-wording group was statistically significant.

"It is amazing to us that we see these results because the primers that we used in the manipulations were so subtle," she said.

One example of a phrase participants would encounter in word scramble was "she spends money liberally" versus "she walks on grass," Smith-Crowe said. The manipulated group was primed to be in a business decision frame of mind, she said, which appeared to cause them to evaluate questions on the basis of cost-benefit analysis and self-interest as opposed to their sense of morals.

She said there are several practical questions raised by the study — which was published last month in the academic journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes — such as how long the effect lasts or whether people like bank tellers who work with money on a daily basis become habituated to being in contact with money.

But she also said there's a broader application in that good, ethical people still commit unethical acts. She said it's important for a person to know their vulnerabilities and to recognize that they may be manipulated without knowing it.

"I don’t think its limited to money, I think it’s being aware that it’s not enough to have good intentions, it’s not enough to know right from wrong," Smith-Crowe said. "We have to be cautious about being influenced by things we wouldn’t think influence us."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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