One bad apple…


Research on dishonesty – following the saying “One bad apple spoils the (whole) barrel” – found that the unethical behaviour of other individuals (cheating for example) can influence the behaviour of observers. This is particularly the case when the observer and the cheater are part of the same group or “barrel”.

This is already a very interesting finding.

However, could we also turn the saying around? If we would remind an apple it is part of a “bad” barrel make it bad too?

Researchers from the University of Zurich put this to the test. They randomly selected 128 banking employees. Half of the group were primed with bank related questions reminding them they were part of the banking industry (the barrel) and the other half received unrelated questions. After this they participated in a specific game renowned for measuring dishonest behaviour. They then extended this experiment to employees outside the banking industry doing the same thing.

The question at hand… would it make a difference to the participants’ behaviour whether or not they had been reminded they were part of the ‘banking’ barrel? The answer was a rather clear yes (an increase of 16% dishonesty). This same effect was not measured for medical doctors or the general population.

When bank employees were reminded of their professional identity their compliance to the honesty norm was weakened. An industry’s professional identity is very relevant to the subsequent ethical behaviour of its participants.

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