When we’re stressed out and feeling threatened, our priority becomes self-preservation. According to new research, this defensive mode even affects our morality, making us more likely to cheat and excuse our own unethical behaviour.
Maryam Kouchaki and Sreedhari Desai demonstrated this through six experiments. In the clearest example, 63 student participants spent three minutes listening to either calm music, or in the anxiety condition, to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score. Those freaked out by Hermann’s definitive ode to unease declared they were more anxious at the end of the study, and they had threat on their mind (this was confirmed through a word matching task – the Psycho group more often selected words with connotations of threat).
Anxious? Check. Threatened? Check. Unethical? Kouchaki and Desai went hunting for cheaters. Their participants next completed a simple computer task for money, for which there was an obvious way to cheat. The non-anxious students made an average of 19 “clear cheats”, whereas the anxious ramped this up to 24. The more threatened the anxious felt, the more they cheated.
The researchers think this probably happened because threat provokes us to grab resources, status … anything to buffer the self. An alternative explanation is that anxiety somehow frazzles our apparatus for moral judgment in general. The researchers showed this wasn’t the case in a further experiment where an unethical act – secretly copying a password that gave access to the questions for the next day’s fictional job interview – was either posed as something that the participant had done, or a third party named Steve. Participants who had been put into an anxious state judged Steve’s infraction just as severely as their non-anxious counterparts, yet they were more likely to let themselves off the hook.
When we’re anxious, our sympathetic nervous system floods us with noradrenaline, activating our fight-or-flight pathways. How can I look after me, now? With this imperative looming large, it’s unsurprising that we no longer have bandwidth available for our higher principles. It tallies with evidence that, when threatened, people are more likely to consume scarce communal resources, without regard to fair distribution or the long-term. The new findings may not extend to more severe violations such as willingness to harm others, but they do suggest we’re quick to forget lofty notions such as “fair play’ when we feel under threat.
Kouchaki, M., & Desai, S. (2014). Anxious, Threatened, and Also Unethical: How Anxiety Makes Individuals Feel Threatened and Commit Unethical Acts. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0037796