Study: Men are unethical for themselves, women for others

Why do we choose to look the other way when it is time to do the right thing? The motivation for dishonest behavior can be gendered, a new study finds. In a new paper for Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers Maryam Kouchakia and Laura J. Kray found that men are more likely to motivated to act unethically on their own behalf, while women are more likely to erode their ethics for the sake of others.

Women act unethically because they do not want to let others down

For women, the pressure of “I won’t let you down” can make them more likely to engage in morally questionable behavior. Across four studies, the researchers recruited 1,337 participants to engage in hypothetical negotiations. They found that women who considered lying for others anticipated less guilt than those who considered lying for themselves.

In one study, they got participants to negotiate as a buyer or as an agent representing the buyer. In the agent role, the participants were told that their client wanted to build a commercial high-rise hotel, but if they were truthful about this zoning intention in a negotiation, they would get rejected by the seller. The participants had a choice: be truthful about their client’s desires or lie. Women were more likely to lie when they were advocating for their client, while men experienced the opposite behavior.

When women act unethically, it is not because they find the dishonest behavior to be appropriate. Instead, the researchers suggests it is because the pressure to follow through on an obligation has outweighed their concern over moral qualms.

“It reflects a disconnection between what women see as right and what they feel obligated to do,” the researchers conclude. “Women attend to the expectations of others and seek to assuage the anticipatory guilt associated with letting others down, which drives their choice of moral behavior when advocating for others.”

In this way, guilt can actually encourage women to act against their own personal interest. To protect themselves, women should remember to communicate their expectations around ethics before they find themselves mired in a moral quandary.