Laura Noval

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If we want to do something self-serving, we convince ourselves the victim has nothing in common with us

Imagine you’re given control of lottery tickets for a cash prize. The stakes are high and it’s your job to share them out fairly with someone you’ve never met. You know he or she is ambitious, entrepreneurial, spirited – a bit like you. What would you do? Play fair, divvy them up evenly and may the best man – or woman – win? Or secretly hang on to the lion’s share, increasing your chances of walking away with the cash? Or worst, keep all the tickets for yourself?

Years of research looking at both humans and primates show we (and our ape cousins) are more likely to empathise with those who resemble us. This makes us less likely to harm them – we might even want to help them and share our resources with them.

Conversely, we are more likely to behave selfishly towards someone, or cause them harm, when they have little or nothing in common with us. When a person is different in class, ethnicity, race or national culture, we feel their pain less: even studies of our neural circuits show we are less concerned about their well-being.

The higher the incentive… the more likely people are to develop such a self-serving bias

In our research, we have discovered some unpalatable truths. If people want to do something self-serving – such as hanging on to more lottery tickets – they will convince themselves in advance that the victim has nothing in common with them. This pre-emptive action makes it easier to quash uncomfortable feelings that one is not playing fair. Distorting the truth by deliberately making the victim seem unfamiliar means it is easier to harm them, and the perpetrator doesn’t necessarily perceive what they are doing as wrong.

Feeling bad feels bad

At the heart of our work is learning to understand how people with the best intentions can behave badly. We’re trying to unpick the mechanisms we deploy to assuage a guilty conscience – and observe how this dictates our subsequent actions.

In the past, we’ve seen how people are capable of distorting their actions after the event if they’ve done something unfair or unethical. This is human nature: we don’t like to feel bad about ourselves so we practise a little self-deception. But this is the first time we’ve shown people are capable of distorting their opinions of others for their own gain in advance.

It is possible employees soothed their consciences about harming their clients by perceiving them as different

If they are tempted by money, they are more likely to be biased against the person they would harm if they got that money. And if they think less of someone, they feel less guilt about causing that self-serving harm – by hanging onto those lottery tickets, for example.

The higher the incentive – the greater the sum of money up for grabs – the more likely people are to develop such a self-serving bias. Thinking less of someone lessens the barrier of conscience between desire and goal.

In our research, we almost fell upon this truth. We were initially investigating how people perceive who’s “in” and who’s “out” of a social group. But we began to realise that financial incentives distorted how similar people think about each other – even though, in a perfectly rational world, money should not have anything to do with the way we perceive others.

Wild farrago

There are many ways you can go from here. We’ve looked at how individuals function, but we could also consider how people behave in groups. When members of a group agree with each other, they tend to reinforce each other’s biases and grow even more convinced they’re right. This type of group bias is even stronger than individual bias and harder to crack – but if we can properly understand the mechanisms at play, we could begin to counter them.

Making the victim seem unfamiliar means it is easier to harm them, and the perpetrator doesn’t necessarily perceive what they are doing as wrong

Or what if people went one step further than merely thinking less, and started to actively dehumanise one another? We know this happens on the battlefield from the way soldiers talk about war, when they see those they hurt as “things” rather than living beings. If this ever occurs in a corporate setting – if employees begin to see clients as non-human – it might allow them to justify more seriously harmful behaviour, such as fraud or environmental crimes.

There have been many ethical scandals in business that show this is possible. Consider the Wells Fargo furore: staff at the US financial services company committed widespread fraud by opening unwanted accounts, charging unwarranted fees and illegally repossessing peoples’ cars. It is possible employees soothed their consciences about harming their clients by perceiving them as different, as our research would suggest. It is even possible employees started dehumanising those clients, and that their biases were supported by others in their group – which would have made things even worse.

Businesses might set ethics and rules to dictate how they expect employees to behave, but our research could help companies understand the mechanisms behind unethical decisions, and fight them. To balance self-serving distortions, companies could, for instance, encourage employees to look for similarities rather than differences in colleagues or clients, making them less likely to do anything to harm them. It’s an approach that’s definitely worth a second thought.

This article draws on findings from “Motivated dissimilarity construal and self-serving behavior: How we distance ourselves from those we harm” by Laura J. Noval, Andrew Molinsky (Brandeis University) and Günter K. Stahl (WU Vienna), published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

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Laura Noval

About Laura J. Noval

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour
Laura J. Noval holds a PhD from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, and has extensive professional experience in Argentina, Austria, France, Germany and the US.

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