Drawing the line somewhere: An experimental study of moral compromise

Alan Lewis, Alexander Bardis, Chloe Flint, Claire Mason, Natalya Smith, Charlotte Tickle, Jennifer Zinser

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In a study by Shalvi, Dana, Handgraaf, and De Dreu (2011) it was convincingly demonstrated that psychologically, the distinction between right and wrong is not discrete, rather it is a continuous distribution of relative ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’. Using the ‘die-under-the-cup’ paradigm participants over-reported high numbers on the roll of a die when there were financial incentives to do so and no chance of detection for lying. Participants generally did not maximise income, instead making moral compromises. In an adaptation of this procedure in a single die experiment 9% of participants lied that they had rolled a ‘6’ when they had not compared to 2.5% in the Shalvi et al. study suggesting that when the incentive is donation to charity this encourages more dishonesty than direct personal gain. In a follow-up questionnaire study where sequences of three rolls were presented, lying increased where counterfactuals became available as predicted by Shalvi et al. A novel finding is reported where ‘justified’ lying is more common when comparative gains are higher.

An investigation of individual differences revealed that economics students were much more likely to lie than psychology students. Relevance to research on tax evasion, corporate social responsibility and the ‘credit crunch’ is discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)718-725
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Economic Psychology
Issue number4
Early online date30 Jan 2012
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2012


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