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Can money overpower ethics?

By Judy Martel · Bankrate.com
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Posted: 6 am ET

Does currency hold so much power over us that the mere suggestion of it corrupts our good intentions? A study published in May found that participants are more likely to act unethically when exposed to money -- even if it's only through photos or words related to money, in lieu of actual cash.

Kristin Smith-Crowe, associate professor at The University of Utah and one of the study's authors, says that suggestions or subtle reminders of money put people into a different frame of mind that she calls a "business decision frame."

"When people think in business terms, it means they think in terms of cost-benefit analyses and more about themselves," rather than about the greater good for society, she explains. "It's a narrowing of the way we think."

When money is viewed as a reward

In various exercises, participants were compared to control groups to gauge their reaction when subtle reminders of money were presented. For example, a group was given the task of unscrambling phrases, with half the group looking at phrases that contained words related to money. One group would unscramble the phrase, "She spends money liberally," while the control group might have a phrase that read, "She walked on grass." In another exercise, people were told they could earn more money in certain circumstances if they lied.

Compared to control groups, the participants presented with money concepts demonstrated unethical intentions, she says. "The presence of money determines how we behave, in other words, whether we will be rewarded," she adds.

This isn't to say that people wouldn't react positively if a different concept were presented, Smith-Crowe points out. "There's an interesting study at University of British Columbia, where participants were primed with the notion that God is watching you," she says. "It caused people to react in more social ways."

Money, itself, is not the problem

"As a whole, money has been around for a long time and if not money, some other commodity," says Smith-Crowe. The study is less about money as a problem than about promoting awareness that can lead to maximizing social responsibility, particularly in business, she adds.

The goal of the study is to help people understand how they make decisions and whether they are including all relevant factors besides money. "The broadest takeaway message is that even if we're well-intentioned, our decisions can be impacted by factors we don't realize affect us," Smith-Crowe says. "We are affected by biases, but it doesn't mean we're irrational people. I don't think it's a negative story."

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