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Unethical Behavior

Topic: Psychological Closeness and Dishonesty

Vicarious Dishonesty: When Psychological Closeness Creates Distance from One’s Moral Compass

Francesca Gino, Harvard University
Adam D. Galinsky, Northwestern University

In four studies employing multiple manipulations of psychological closeness, the authors found that feeling connected to another individual who engages in selfish or dishonest behavior leads people to behave more selfishly and less ethically themselves. In addition, psychologically connecting with a scoundrel led to greater moral disengagement.

The authors also established that vicarious justification is the mechanism explaining this effect: When participants felt psychologically close to someone who had behaved selfishly, they were more likely to consider the behavior to be less shame-worthy and less unethical. It was these lenient judgments that then led them to act more unethically themselves. These vicarious effects were moderated by whether the miscreant was identified with a photograph and by the type of behavior.

Importantly, the authors established a general process of vicariousness: Psychological closeness produced both vicarious generosity and selfishness depending on the behavior of the person one feels psychologically connected to.

These findings suggest an irony of psychological closeness: It creates distance from one’s own moral compass.

Abstract from Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 119(1), 15-26

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