When Usain Bolt or Serena Williams step out for their latest race or match, the world waits with bated breath. As some of the best athletes in the world, their unbelievable winning streaks have been met by almost universal acclaim — and plenty of people hoping that streak isn’t broken.
But according to Jesse Walker from Ohio State University and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University, that investment and goodwill just isn’t the same when it comes to teams: we’re far less impressed by consecutive wins by groups of people than those by individuals. They call this phenomenon the “Streaking Star Effect” in their new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”: for the more mild-mannered among us, Bruce Banner’s famous catchphrase may not resonate. But add some hunger — “you wouldn’t like me when I’m hangry” — and many of us can start to relate.
Being hungry, whilst a daily occurrence, can have multiple negative psychological impacts. For one, and most obviously, it simply doesn’t feel good, often leading us to the aforementioned rattiness of “hanger”. But acute hunger has also been linked to an increase in self-interest and a decrease in helping behaviour, too. If your resources are low, the theory goes, you’re much less likely to cooperate with others as you want to keep food for yourself and are unwilling to expend valuable resources like time and energy on helping others.
But this isn’t always the case — at least not according to a new piece of research from Nature Communications. The team argues that acute hunger doesn’t always have an impact on prosociality, even though people strongly believe it does.
When impropriety or corruption emerges in an organisation, some cry “bad apple!” where others reply “more like bad barrel!” Yet between individuals and organisations we have teams, the context in which decisions are increasingly made. A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology sheds some light on what it takes for teams to behave badly.
Researchers Matthew Pearsall and Aleksander Ellis recruited 378 undergraduate management studies students (about 1/3 female), already organised into study groups of three who had collaborated for months. Participants were asked to rate themselves on items relating to different philosophical outlooks, the pertinent one being utilitarianism, where the focus is on outcomes. Previous research suggests individuals who highly value utilitarianism tend to behave more unethically, as they are more prepared to bend rules or mislead if they perceive the ends to justify the means. Pearsall and Ellis suspected the same to be true in groups.
Each team was given a real opportunity to behave unethically, by cheating in the self-evaluation of a piece of coursework. Buried within the scoring criteria was an issue that could not possibly have been covered in the assignment, meaning any team that ticked this off was faking it. As expected, teams with a higher average utilitarianism score were more likely to cheat, mirroring the effect found for individuals.
However, there is a protective buffer against acting unethically in a team. You may be willing to bend the rules, and even suspect others share your view… but do you really want to be the first to say so out loud? Pearsall and Ellis predicted that making this step requires a strong feeling of psychological safety, the sense that others will not judge or report you for speaking out or taking risks. It turns out that the cheating behaviour observed in teams with high utilitarianism scores was almost entirely dependent on a psychologically safe environment, as measured using items like “It is safe to take a risk on this team”. Lacking that safe environment, the highly utilitarian teams were almost as well-behaved as their lower-scoring counterparts.
The researchers note that academic cheating involves relatively low stakes, so this may be a constraint on how far we should generalise to other situations. They also emphasise that psychological safety is generally something we prize in teams, and rightly so: through facilitating open communication and consideration of alternate views it can enhance performance, learning and adaptation to change. However, this evidence suggests that it can also incubate unethical behaviour, and the researchers urge that the field continues to look beyond the traits of individual miscreants to consider state factors such as psychological safety, that allow bad behaviour to take root. _________________________________
Pearsall, M., & Ellis, A. (2011). Thick as thieves: The effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (2), 401-411 DOI: 10.1037/a0021503