Hristina Nikolova

It may sound like a two-guys-walk-into-a-bar joke, but actually it’s a research experiment: Two people who voted for Donald Trump, or a pair that went for Hillary Clinton, log into an online chat room. They’re asked to take a survey together, and if they notice any technical malfunctions, they’ll get a small bonus payment. There are, by the way, no technical problems with the online survey, so no one’s entitled to the payment.

Are the two people—who know they both voted for the same candidate—likely to claim the unwarranted bonus? More to the point, are these kindred spirits more likely to cut the ethical corner than someone who is deciding alone, or even an unmatched pair that voted for different candidates?

Yes, on all counts, according to a paper published in the June edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, featuring Carroll School of Management marketing professor Hristina Nikolova as lead author. The purpose of the study was not to explore political ethics (both Trump and Clinton pairs behaved unethically). Rather, it was part of a series of experiments that looked at whether people making joint ethical decisions are more inclined than individuals to do the wrong thing—especially when they have a desire to bond with each other.

You’d think that individuals are more likely to skirt ethics, feeling they could get away with it because they’re acting alone. But Nikolova’s findings suggest otherwise, and the reason has to do with the desire to bond.

“It’s bad behavior, but it’s driven by a good motive,” said Nikolova, referring to this basic human need. For example, in the chat-room experiment, the pairs that voted the same way in 2016 had a strong interest in bonding (they said so, separately), and two-thirds of them did the dirty deed—reporting a glitch where there was none. Not surprisingly, the Trump-Clinton pairs generally expressed little interest in getting to know each other better; a bare majority of them grabbed the bonus. Similarly, only a little over half of the individual decision-makers took the money.

Nikolova, who holds the Diane Harkins Coughlin and Christopher J. Coughlin Sesquicentennial Assistant Professorship, underscored the point: “It’s our innate drive to connect. That’s what leads us to make unethical decisions jointly that we might not make alone.” This creates what she and her co-authors describe as a “partners in crime” effect on people seeking to bond but not yet bonded.

A further twist in the experiments is that once the pairs get a chance to bond and form a relationship, they are less likely to cheat.

The professor led the study together with Cait Lamberton and Nicole Verrochi Coleman, both of the University of Pittsburgh’s marketing and business economics department. Their findings poke a hole in the conventional wisdom that people work better when they work together, which Nikolova says is doubtless true in many ways, but not necessarily when it comes to ethical decision-making. Their paper is titled “Stranger Danger: When and Why Consumer Dyads Behave Less Ethically than Individuals.” “Stranger” refers to situations in which people make ethical decisions with those they don’t know well, but might like to know better—hence the “danger.” And “dyads” is social science talk for two people.

Those situations are more common than you might think, the researchers note in their 58-page paper, citing several examples.

At the end of every summer, two million or so freshmen stream onto college campuses, suddenly making decisions with roommates and other peers they hardly know—maybe about whether to pilfer a pizza from the dorm fridge. Each year, tens of millions of single Americans go on a first date with someone they met online, and may face decisions like whether to report an undercharged bill to the server. In the workplace, new team members are often thrust into collaborative ethical decision-making—will they tell a potential hire that the job they’re offering won’t exist in six months?

In these and many other instances, people who have little or no pre-existing relationship with each other are making ethical judgments—and that makes a difference, according to the research findings.

The Experiments

In the first experiment, 74 pairs of undergraduates who had never met were recruited for a 30-minute research session. Working side by side, they were paid five dollars to take a general-knowledge quiz. The design of the survey also made it possible to cheat by inflating the scores—which would bolster the chances of winning a $50 bonus.

Students went for the money: Approximately three-quarters of them fudged their quiz performance. There was, however, a separate group of 57 students who worked individually, and by comparison, just a little over half of these participants acted unethically.

The pairs in that study did not have an opportunity to bond with each other before making their choices, but what happens when people do get that chance? The research team tested that possibility too.

In the second experiment, a sampling of paired subjects were able to engage in conversation prior to decision-making. They were guided by a set of questions that encouraged them to talk about themselves, their families, and their hopes and fears—questions designed to bring about bonding. (The subjects were, again, undergraduate students, in the same room together.) Also taking part in the experiment were pairs that did not have such a bonding opportunity, and individuals.

All of the participants were asked to imagine they’re negotiating a salary with a job candidate. The ethical dilemma was that their supervisor has told them to get the candidate to accept a lower-than-typical salary in exchange for at least two years of job security—even though they knew the position was going to be eliminated in six months. They were asked to rate how likely they’d be to mislead the job candidate in that way.

The upshot: those who effectively bonded behaved more ethically than those who lacked the opportunity to do so. They were much more likely than the non-bonded pairs to tell the truth to the candidate (and about as likely as those deciding alone). Explaining this result, the article says that ethical misconduct is likely to happen when two people have a desire to form a relationship with each other—and the desire remains unfulfilled—but the likelihood “disappears when the partners have satisfied this goal.” A third experiment replicated these findings.

Finally, the researchers looked at the Trump and Clinton pairs—voters in their thirties, recruited through an online chat platform.

One key finding in this study is that the like-minded duos felt more bonded after they made their unethical decisions to claim the illicit bonus. In other words, it isn’t just that people think or hope that an unethical act will help them connect. “It actually does help them do that,” said Nikolova. “So next time, in the same situation, they’ll act in the same way, because they know it helps with bonding.”

Advice to Managers

Why do people behave more ethically when they’ve had a chance to bond?

Drawing on past research involving married couples, the journal article suggests that these pairs are more likely than people without a pre-existing relationship to hold each other accountable to high moral standards. Because they have a relationship, they’re operating more as a decision-making unit, so their ethical choices have a greater effect on their self-identity.

All of which amounts to an argument “for the benefits of friendships in the workplace,” according to the authors. “Our findings reveal the value of social bonds between team members in the workplace and consumption communities.” The researchers add that managers and organizations would be well advised to put more effort into building relationships among their employees before asking them to make ethical choices together.

William Bole is Senior Writer and Editor at the Carroll School of Management.

Photo provided by University Communications.