Media Releases

Why do people behave badly? Maybe it’s just too easy

November 23, 2010

TORONTO, ON – Many peo­ple say they wouldn’t cheat on a test, lie on a job appli­ca­tion or refuse to help a per­son in need.

But what if the test answers fell into your lap and cheat­ing didn’t require any work on your part? If you didn’t have to face the per­son who need­ed your help and refuse them? Would that change your behav­iour?

New research out of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough shows it might. In two stud­ies that test­ed par­tic­i­pants’ will­ing­ness to behave immoral­ly, the UTSC team dis­cov­ered peo­ple will behave bad­ly – if it doesn’t involve too much work on their part.

“Peo­ple are more like­ly to cheat and make immoral deci­sions when their trans­gres­sions don’t involve an explic­it action,” says Rim­ma Teper, PhD stu­dent and lead author on the study, pub­lished online now in Social Psy­cho­log­i­cal and Per­son­al­i­ty Sci­ence. “If they can lie by omis­sion, cheat with­out doing much leg­work, or bypass a person’s request for help with­out express­ly deny­ing them, they are much more like­ly to do so.”

In one study, par­tic­i­pants took a math test on a com­put­er after being warned there were glitch­es in the sys­tem. One group was told if they pressed the space bar, the answer to the ques­tion would appear on the screen. The sec­ond group was told if they didn’t press the enter key with­in five sec­onds of see­ing a ques­tion, the answer would appear.

“Peo­ple in the sec­ond group – those who didn’t have to phys­i­cal­ly press a but­ton to get the answers – were much more like­ly to cheat,” says Asso­ciate Psy­chol­o­gy Pro­fes­sor Michael Inzlicht, sec­ond author on the study.

In anoth­er study, the team asked par­tic­i­pants whether they would vol­un­teer to help a stu­dent with a learn­ing dis­abil­i­ty com­plete a com­po­nent of the test. One group of par­tic­i­pants had only the option of check­ing a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ box that popped up on the com­put­er. The sec­ond group of peo­ple could fol­low a link at the bot­tom of the page to vol­un­teer their help or sim­ply press ‘con­tin­ue’ to move on to the next page of their test. Par­tic­i­pants were five times more like­ly to vol­un­teer when they had to express­ly pick either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

“It seems to be more dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to explic­it­ly deny their help, by click­ing ‘no,’ than it is for them to sim­ply click ‘con­tin­ue’ and elude doing the right thing. We sus­pect that emo­tion plays an impor­tant role in dri­ving this effect” says Teper.

“When peo­ple are con­front­ed with active­ly doing the right thing or the wrong thing, there are a lot of emo­tions involved – such as guilt and shame – that guide them to make the moral choice. When the trans­gres­sion is more pas­sive, how­ev­er, we saw more peo­ple doing the wrong thing, and we believe this is because the moral emo­tions in such sit­u­a­tions are prob­a­bly less intense,” Teper says.

The team’s research on moral behav­iour is unique in that it looks at how peo­ple behave in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions ver­sus sim­ply ask­ing them to pre­dict how they might behave, says Inzlicht. It also has crit­i­cal impli­ca­tions for those in the busi­ness of solic­it­ing peo­ples’ good will, mon­ey or time.

“Forc­ing peo­ple to make an active, moral deci­sion – a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to donat­ing, for exam­ple – is going to be much more effec­tive than allow­ing them to pas­sive­ly skip over a request,” he says.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Rim­ma Teper
Lead author, PhD stu­dent
Cell: 416–648-3843

Michael Inzlicht
Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor, Psy­chol­o­gy
Cell: 416–820-2395

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