A quick Google Search will tell you that we have a hard time saying no — almost 70,000,000 results for the exact phrase of “how to say no.” A study published this last fall showed that our proclivity for not saying no might actually lead us into unethical behaviour.
The researchers begin by establishing that studies have shown how we tend not to say no when someone asks us to do something for them (i.e. engage in prosocial behaviour) and use this as the basis for testing whether this might also lead us to comply with unethical requests. To test this hypothesis, the researchers conducted four studies.
In the first study, students had to get another student to tell a “white lie.” The ‘recruiter’ was also instructed to predict how many people they’d have to ask before they’d find someone willing to tell this white lie. Results show that students had to ask approximately half as many people as they expected (8.5 vs. 4.4).
The researchers thought that telling a white lie might not have been “unethical” enough, so in the second study, they had students recruit other students to vandalize. As one would expect, students predicted that they would have to ask more people (10.7) before finding someone willing to help them out. However, as was the case with the white lie, it only took asking 4.7 people before they found someone to help them out.
In studies three and four, the researchers were trying to determine whether or not the people who were asking others do take part in unethical behavior were aware of their influence and whether the people partaking in the unethical behavior actually had a harder time “doing the right thing” if they were asked to partake in unethical behavior. In both cases, they found evidence for their hypotheses. That is, when we try to convince someone to partake in unethical behavior, we underestimate our influence and as the person doing the unethical behavior, we find it harder to “do the right thing” when someone suggests unethical behavior.
The key finding, according to the researchers:
The truly startling finding is the lack of awareness people appear to have of this tendency when they are in a position to influence someone else’s ethical behavior. Overall, the current research suggests that we may not recognize the extent which our words and actions affect others’ ethical behavior and decisions.
I’ve certainly written about the importance of our words. Although, it was in a different context. The finding from this study is, as the researchers’ say, startling.
Prior to reading the study, I wouldn’t have predicted that we would so easily be susceptible to partaking in unethical behaviour. In fact, one of my potential critiques was cross-cultural. That is, would results like these hold in different cultures? According to the researchers, yes. With that being said, I do wonder if conducting this study with a different population — Americans, rather than Canadians — might provide different results.
Bohns, V., Roghanizad, M., & Xu, A. (2013). Underestimating Our Influence Over Others’ Unethical Behavior and Decisions Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40 (3), 348-362 DOI: 10.1177/0146167213511825