Ethical Violations: When One Thing Leads to Another


Not everyone is destined to follow one ethical transgression with another, but a new study reveals what type of person is likely to be a “repeat offender.”

In a series of experiments, behavioral researcher Shu Zhang of Columbia Business School and her colleagues found that people who derive a sense of security from the status quo (prevention focused) are significantly more likely to follow one ethical lapse with another than are people who are comfortable with change (promotion focused).

In one experiment, for example, Zhang and her colleagues assigned college students to carry out two tasks: a general-knowledge quiz and an anagram.  For each task, they were told they could win $100 if their performance ranked in the top half of all participants. At the end of the first quiz, the volunteers received feedback on their performance and were given a slightly exaggerated score that they were asked to accept or reject. (The subjects were aware of the elevated score, so accepting it would in essence constitute cheating.)

The volunteers then proceeded to work on the word task, and once finished they viewed the answer key and reported how many anagrams they had solved. The researchers were able to compare participants’ self-reported performance with their true performance. They then used a psychological measure to gauge each participant’s prevention and promotion preferences.

The research team found that participants with the strongest prevention focus were more likely to exaggerate their anagram performance if they cheated on the first quiz, according to a report in Psychological Science. Among people with a promotion focus, initial cheating showed no signs of spurring a repeated transgression.

Zhang and colleagues ran four variations of this initial experiment. In every case, prevention-focused people followed one unethical decision with another unrelated violation. Sometimes those participants overstated personal performance on the task. Other times, they hid information.

The researchers note that a prevention focus can also perpetuate honest decisions, not just unethical ones. They add that even with transgressors, resetting the status quo by encouraging them to start new, ethical actions can reverse the stream of misconduct.


Zhang, S., Cornwell, J.F.M., & Higgins, E.T. (2013). Repeating the Past: Prevention Focus Motivates Repetition, Even for Unethical Decisions. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797613502363

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