Psychological Science at Work

The indispensable research blog on the science of the modern workplace, covering everything from leadership and management to the behavioral, social, and cognitive dynamics behind performance and achievement.

The Slippery-Slope Effect: Minor Misdeeds Lead to Major Ones

PAFF_030915_SlipperySlope_newsfeature“Well, you know what happens is, it starts out with you taking a little bit, maybe a few hundred, a few thousand,” notorious fraudster Bernie Madoff told Vanity Fair after stealing $18 billion from investors. “You get comfortable with that, and before you know it, it snowballs into something big.”

A new study finds that getting away with minor infractions ends up making it easier for people to justify bigger, more serious ethical violations. Over time, small ethical transgressions–like stealing pens from work–can put employees on the “slippery slope” of increasingly bad behavior.

Across four experiments, psychological scientists David Welsh (University of Washington), Lisa Ordóñez (University of Arizona), Deirdre Snyder (Providence College), and Michael Christian (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), found that people were more likely to cheat when the stakes were small and misdeeds were easier to rationalize.



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Too Much Workplace Positivity Might Dampen Employee Motivation

PAFF_030315_TooPositiveWork_newsfeatureWorkers in Google’s offices enjoy an impressive array of perks: subsidized massages, scooters, putting greens, and office video game consoles. In an interview with The New York Times, a Google spokesman explained that the company provides these unusual perks as a way “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world.”

But new research suggests that when it climbs too high, a positive mood in the office can actually hurt employee motivation.

Happy employees are more likely to engage in the kind of proactive above-and-beyond behaviors that organizations need to succeed. But a recent study from psychological scientists Chak Fu Lam (Suffolk University), Gretchen Spreitzer (University of Michigan), and Charlotte Fritz (Portland State University) found that when positive mood climbs beyond a certain point, positive behavior at work may actually start to decline.

We might assume that unhappy employees are the…


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Are Corporations People, Too? Your Brain Seems to Process Them That Way


According to rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, corporations are people, at least when it comes to certain legal rights such as free speech. While corporations may be people in the eyes of the law, a team of psychological scientists recently investigated whether corporations also register as people in the brain.

Researchers Mark Plitt, Ricky Savjani, and David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine utilized neuroimaging technology to determine whether people unconsciously perceive corporations as inanimate objects or as people.

“Little is known about how our brains process information about collective units such as corporations,” the researchers write in the journal Social Neuroscience. “As an organization comes to form an identity, a question arises: are corporations and their actions regarded as social beings or as inanimate objects?”

Plitt and colleagues hypothesized that not only would participants rate the actions of corporations…


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Just Feeling Like Part of a Team Increases Motivation on Challenging Tasks

PAFF_022415_TeamsBoostMotivation_newsfeatureNew research finds that just the sense that we’re working together with others can dramatically increase our motivation to complete difficult tasks—even when we’re actually working alone.

Across five experiments Stanford psychological scientists Priyanka B. Carr and Gregory M. Walton concluded that even subtle suggestions of being part of a team dramatically increased people’s motivation and enjoyment in relation to difficult tasks, leading to greater perseverance and engagement and even higher levels of performance.

“Simply feeling like you’re part of a team of people working on a task makes people more motivated as they take on challenges,” says Walton.

Carr and Walton hypothesized that a sense of working together would fuel intrinsic motivation by turning a tedious task from work into play.

For each of the five studies, participants first met each other in small groups of 3-5 people before heading to…


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The Right Face for the Job

PAFF_021915_FacesofLeadership_newsfeaturePicking a leader should be about assessing the experience and skills an individual can bring to the table, but a new study finds that getting ahead may be easier for people with the right facial features.

In a study published in The Leadership Quarterly, psychological scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, Warwick Business School, and West Point Military Academy found that people were surprisingly good at matching leaders’ faces to their real professions. Study authors Christopher Y. Olivola, Dawn L. Eubanks, and Jeffrey B. Lovelace suggest that we may be choosing leaders, at least in part, based on unconscious biases towards certain facial features.

“In fact, just having facial features that make one look like a good generic leader might not be sufficient to reach the most prestigious leadership positions in a domain; one may also need to possess facial features that stereotypically…


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