Striving for perfection can trigger immoral behaviour, research shows
Pursuing the best things in life — the best job, partner, education, house, even the best stuff to fill that house — can be all-consuming.
Now, a new study co-authored by Caroline Roux, assistant professor of marketing at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, has found that individuals on a quest for the best are often inclined to fudge the truth or cut corners.
“People are more willing to cheat, lie and commit small immoral behaviours when they’re in pursuit of perfection,” says Roux.
Roux co-wrote the article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology with Kelly Goldsmith from Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, and Jingjing Ma of Peking University.
Maximizers often feel they need additional resources
“A lot of research shows a maximizing mindset — or a need to find and have the finest things — tends to make people unhappier about themselves and their choices,” says Roux, adding these negative effects on individuals are well-documented.
The effects for society more broadly haven’t been studied, however. To better understand those consequences, Roux and her colleague launched a series of experiments to determine whether people who wanted the best were more willing to cheat or lie to get it.
In one experiment, participants were asked to solve a series of “word jumbles.” If they solved the majority they would receive a reward, and if they solved all of them that reward would be better. But some of the puzzles couldn’t be solved without external help, like going online.
When the results were analyzed, participants with an activated “maximizing mindset” were more likely to have cheated on the word jumbles than those without.
“The maximizing mindset conjures feelings about scarcity, because striving for the best takes resources — time, money, effort,” says Roux.
“Since having the best is so consuming and laborious, maximizers often feel they need additional resources to attain their goals. As such, they are more likely to act immorally if it’s in their self-interest.”
Small transgressions, big impact
Some people are natural maximizers, and some people aren’t. Maximizing is socially encouraged, though, and the drive to have the best can be activated.
Consider, for example, marketing that urges consumers to buy the very best, or dating apps that keep users swiping so as not to settle. Work and school environments can also turn up the heat on competition.
While small transgressions to achieve the best might seem marginal on the individual scale, Roux warns that on a larger scale they can build up and have a negative impact on the public good.
For instance, the team conducted two field studies in China, where inflated housing prices in major cities make it very difficult to find an apartment or house at a reasonable price. In response, the government offers housing subsidies to those buying property, on the condition they don’t already own a home.
“We wanted to know if activating the maximizing mindset would make people who are not eligible for subsidized housing more likely to cheat the system in order to turn a profit by then renting out spaces,” says Roux.
“Not only did the activated maximizers say they had fewer resources than members of the control group, they also found it way more acceptable to apply to these low-cost housing programs despite not being eligible,” she says.
In this context, Roux adds, it becomes clearer how the transgressions associated with having the best individually can manifest in society at large.
“One might imagine that in companies where employees are encouraged to be competitive with one another, you might see more people fudging their expense reports. Or in programs where students fight for the top percentile, you might see more cheating on exams,” she says.
“The pressure to reach an unreachable standard creates a certain desperation that allows people to rationalize the ways in which they cheat, or the short cuts they take.”
A reversible mindset?
The study's findings came with good news, though: it’s fairly easy to neutralize the worst practices of trying to accumulate the best things.
“You see, as human beings, we like to maintain a positive image of ourselves, we don't like to think that we are cheap or dishonest,” Roux said. “If you remind people that their behaviours are less than moral, you can kill the effect.”
For instance, in the word puzzle experiment, one group of participants was reminded before they started not to cheat. They were told that if they were caught cheating, they wouldn’t get a prize. In that group, those with and without an activated maximizing mindset had the same results.
And in the field studies, when participants were asked whether it would be acceptable for others to cheat the system, they said no. Those who had initially thought it would be fair to take advantage of the system for themselves quickly changed their minds.
Read Caroline Roux’s co-authored paper, “When Seeking the Best Brings out the Worst in Consumers: Understanding the Relationship between a Maximizing Mindset and Immoral Behavior.”