Thinking about money corrupts more than thinking about time

When people are encouraged to think about time and not money, they are less inclined to cheat, according to a new US study that suggests money does indeed, corrupt.

The researchers found that when faced with temptation, thinking about time causes people to reflect on themselves, which strengthens their moral compass, whereas thinking about money causes them to consider the potential rewards of cheating.

They write about their work, titled Time, Money, and Morality, in an online issue of Psychological Science.

‘Ordinary’ unethical behavior is common

Today’s 24-hour news society brings us a continual stream of high-profile frauds, scams and other examples of unethical behavior.

But the researchers say that on a more mundane level, unethical behavior is also all around us, as co-author Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School, explains:

“Less attention is given to the more prevalent ‘ordinary’ unethical behavior carried out by people who value and care about morality but behave unethically when faced with an opportunity to cheat.”

So together with Cassie Mogilner, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, she set out to investigate whether prompting people to self-reflect in such situations might encourage them to follow their moral compass.

For their study they first had volunteers completing various tasks, such as word sorting, searching for song lyrics, and counting. The tasks were designed to get participants thinking about money, time or something neutral.

They then had the volunteers solving puzzles, and then report how many they had solved. They gave them incentives in the form of a sum of money for each puzzle solved.

To the volunteers, the puzzle sheets seemed to be unmarked and anonymous – so when they handed them in, they assumed the researchers would not know which puzzle sheet came from which person.

But what they didn’t know was that each puzzle sheet carried a unique reference number so the researchers could easily compare how many puzzles each volunteer actually solved to how many they reported they had solved.

When thinking about money participants more likely to cheat

The results showed that when participants worked on tasks that primed them to think about money, they were more inclined to cheat on the subsequent puzzle solving exercise.

Specifically, when primed to think about money, 87.5% of the participants cheated on the puzzles compared to 66.7% of those primed to think about neutral things. The extent of their cheating was also more pronounced in that they boosted their scores more than the others.

But when primed to think about time, only 42.4% of the participants overstated their performance on the puzzle tasks.

Further experiments also suggested that the degree of self-reflection involved might explain the link between money and cheating and time and cheating.

The researchers note that getting the volunteers to think about time first appeared to make them “notice how they spend their time sums up to their life as a whole, encouraging them to act in ways they can be proud of when holding up this mirror to who they are.”

Our environment primes us to think about money

But although the study suggests thinking about time might be a useful way to prime us to follow our moral compass, the environment we live in tends to prime us to pay more attention to money.

Prof. Gino:

“Our results suggest that finding ways to nudge people to reflect on the self at the time of temptation, rather than on the potential rewards they can accrue by cheating, may be an effective way to curb dishonesty.”

In another study Market Business News reported recently, researchers suggested that a conscientious personality is linked to good customer service.