When individuals make joint decisions, they tend to be less ethical than they would have been if they made the same decision alone, according to a new study by researchers examining consumer decision making.

In a series of experiments, researchers from Boston College and the University of Pittsburgh found the influence of a partner in decision making led many people to make less ethical choices, the team reported in the Journal of Consumer Research.

For example, when respondents in one of the researchers’ experiments had the opportunity to fraudulently increase their number of tickets in a raffle, 73 percent did so when they were deciding with a partner. Only 54 percent of those deciding on their own opted to try to cheat the raffle.

Hristina Nikolova

“The interesting thing is, though, that this bad behavior is driven by a good motive,” says Hristina Nikolova, the Diane Harkins Coughlin and Christopher J. Coughlin Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor of Marketing at BC's Carroll School of Management, one of the paper’s co-authors. “We find that unethical behavior allows us to bond with others, and people do indeed act on this belief that being partners-in-crime facilitates bonding. Our innate drive to connect is what leads us to make more unethical decisions jointly with others than we do alone.”

Joined by researchers Cait Lamberton and Nicole Verrochi Coleman at the University of Pittsburgh, Nikolova and the team explored the decision-making process through a second experiment where bonding could be desirable or undesirable and gave participants a real opportunity to be more or less ethical.

Participants in the online study were paired with one another in a virtual chat room and asked to discuss their experience watching a video. Some participants were told that they were paired with a person they were likely to see as desirable match – with respondents paired on the basis of which candidate they voted for in the 2016 US presidential election – either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

Other participants were paired with someone “across the aisle,” which the researchers had established was not someone who inspired a desire to bond.

If the video they were watching malfunctioned, the paired respondents were told, they could jointly claim a $1 bonus payment. Though none of the videos did malfunction, 66 percent of the matched-candidate pairs, regardless of whether they supported Clinton or Trump, reported that it did and claimed the unwarranted bonus.

By contrast, the mismatched pairs, not having a desire to bond with one another, were significantly more likely to opt out of the malfunction bonus and behaved as ethically as a control group of individual respondents – only 54 percent of mismatched pairs and 54 percent of individuals who participated in the experiment claimed the $1 bonus.

The findings take on added significance in light of the ethical dilemmas millions of people face as they make everyday decisions when they enter new social circles with other individuals with whom they have few or no pre-existing bonds.

For instance, about 2 million students enter college every fall, where they live in close proximity to strangers and immediately face a number of joint ethical decisions, such as whether or not to steal a pizza from a dormitory refrigerator or to cheat on a class assignment.

Similarly, more than 65 percent of the single Americans using online dating services have gone on a date with someone whom they just met online, possibly facing different ethical dilemmas together on their first dates, such as whether or not to report an undercharged bill to their server and how much to tip them.

New co-workers may be tossed immediately into collaborative ethical decisions related to hiring or income reporting.

The researchers suggest they are ways to safeguard ethical decision making against the pressures their research has uncovered when people are paired with relative strangers.

First, the authors point out that friendship, which satisfies the need to bond with others, can insulate individuals against these tendencies. “If we have another way to bond, we don’t need to use unethical behavior to do so,” says Nikolova, the article’s lead author.

Second, individuals may act ethically when they find others if there is no onus on them to form a personal connection. If an individual lacks that need to connect with others in order to make a decision, then it’s likely individual conscience will remain strong.

“So, if you want to be ethical, find someone you otherwise might not seek out as a friend,” says Lamberton, the Ben L. Fryrear Chair of Marketing and Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Pittsburgh. “You’ll be able to keep one another’s people-pleasing tendencies in check.”

“In an era where division seems to run rampant, this is one more reason that ‘reaching across the aisle’ might be better for all of us,” says Coleman, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Pittsburgh.

“If you find yourself in a situation where you need to make ethical decisions with someone who is unfamiliar to you, take the time to get to know each another first,” says Nikolova. “Then listen to your better angels – together.”

Ed Hayward / University Communications | June 2018