A cure for Wall Street corruption? Science says thinking about time strengthens morality

By Ian Lang, National Monitor | December 10, 2013

A cure for Wall Street corruption? Science says thinking about time strengthens morality

Focusing on money makes people more likely to cheat, but self-reflection has the opposite effect.

Wall Street bankers, or really anyone whose job involves working in finance, has gotten a bad rap since the 2008 financial meltdown. It’s no surprise, because priming people to think about money makes them more likely to cheat and act dishonestly. Well, science may have found a “cure,” of sorts: According to new research published in Psychological Science, prompting people to think about time (which, depending on whom you ask, is either the exact same or total opposite of money) appears to strengthen their moral compass.

The research, conducted by psychological scientists Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Cassie Mogilner of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, shows that implicitly activating the concept of time reduces cheating behavior by encouraging people to engage in self-reflection.

More prevalent than the high-profile cases of corruption seen in the news are more mundane, everyday instances of unethical behavior.

“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,” says Gino.

Scientists set up four experiments where participants were asked to complete simple tasks (puzzles, internet searches etc.), with each designed to invoke thoughts of money, time or something neutral. Believing the tasks to be anonymous, participants were incentivized with money for each additional completed tasks. Of course, the tasks weren’t so anonymous, and thus researchers were able to see which participants had artificially bolstered their numbers.

In the first experiment, 87.5% of the participants primed to think of money cheated on the puzzles, compared to only 66.7% of those participants primed with neutral words. They also cheated to a greater extent, artificially boosting their scores by a greater margin than the other participants. Thinking about time, on the other hand, seemed to prevent people from cheating: Only 42.4% of the participants primed with the concept of time overstated their performance on the task.

Subsequent experiments confirmed that self reflection (or lack-thereof) was the main determinate in the links between money, time and cheating.

Unsurprisingly, preliminary data collected by Gino and Mogilner suggest that people still tend to pay more attention to money.

“These new findings show the benefits of doing just the opposite: thinking about time rather than money,” says 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.”

One suggestion: Install large, unavoidable mirrors in the cubicle of every Wall Street trader and banker.

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