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Physical Environment May Affect Likelihood of Dishonest Behavior

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New research shows that expansive physical settings — such as having a big desk to stretch out while doing work or a large driver’s seat in an automobile — can cause individuals to feel more powerful, which may, in turn, elicit more dishonest behavior, such as stealing, cheating, and even traffic violations.

The new research is forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“In everyday working and living environments, our body postures are incidentally expanded and contracted by our surroundings — by the seats in our cars, the furniture in and around workspaces, even the hallways in our offices — and these environments directly influence the propensity of dishonest behavior in our everyday lives,” said Andy Yap, who spearheaded the research while at Columbia Business School and is now a visiting professor at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Building on previous research demonstrating that expansive postures can lead to a state of power, and that power can lead to dishonest behavior, the new research suggests that expanded, nonverbal postures forced upon individuals by their environments could influence decisions and behaviors in ways that render people less honest.

The research includes findings from four studies conducted in the field and the laboratory.

In one study, the researchers manipulated the expansiveness of workspaces in the lab and tested whether “incidentally” expanded bodies — shaped organically by one’s environment — led to more dishonesty on a test.

Another experiment examined whether participants in a more expansive driver’s seat would be more likely to “hit and run” when incentivized to go fast in a video-game driving simulation.

To extend results to a real-world context, an observational field study tested the ecological validity of the effect by examining whether automobile drivers’ seat size predicted the violation of parking laws in New York City. The field study revealed that automobiles with more expansive driver’s seats were more likely to be illegally parked on New York City streets.

The research indicates that while individuals may pay very little attention to ordinary and seemingly innocuous shifts in bodily posture, these subtle postural shifts can have tremendous impact on our thoughts, feelings and behavior.

The research, titled “The Ergonomics of Dishonesty: The Effect of Incidental Posture on Stealing, Cheating, and Traffic Violations,” is co-authored by Abbie Wazlawek, a PhD student at Columbia Business School; Brian Lucas, a PhD student at Kellogg School of Management; Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School; and Dana Carney, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

This research was supported by an NSF CAREER grant (1056194) to Dana R. Carney.