Lying to Level the Playing Field: Why People May Dishonestly Help or Hurt Others to Create Equity
Abstract (via Francesca Gino & Lamar Pierce @ HBS)
Unethical and dishonest behavior has increasingly attracted the attention of scholars from various disciplines. Recent work has begun to focus on a previous overlooked factor predicting dishonest behavior: the beneficiary or victim of dishonest acts. In two laboratory experiments, we manipulate the level of resources allocated to our participants (their “wealth”) and investigate whether perceived inequity from wealth that is randomly or subjectively assigned leads individuals to cross ethical boundaries through helping or hurting others. The results show that dishonest behavior is influenced by positive and negative inequity that motivates helping and hurting acts. Furthermore, a third experiment shows that people tend to discount the wrongness of crossing ethical boundaries to hurt or help others when the action restores equity.
Our findings suggest that perceptions of negative inequity are powerful drivers of dishonest behavior that hurts a referent other. But, as our results show, even perceptions of positive inequity can have negative consequences, since they motivate dishonest behavior that helps others. Furthermore, our findings suggest that when dishonest behavior is used as a means to restore equity, individuals discount the immorality of their actions, behaving like modern Robin Hoods. This suggests that rules and ethical norms (such as honesty) can be easily bypassed due to highly subjective perceptions of ethically-safe behaviors when such behaviors, while actually dishonest, restore equity.