How Trying To Fit In Can Lead To Unethical Behaviour

Being popular is something most of us aspire to in some way.  Given our inherent desire to fit in, are there circumstances when we will do bad things in order to curry favour with our peers?  That was the question posed by a recent study that explored the social aspects of unethical behaviour.  The paper suggests that the ones amongst us that are most likely to break the rules in order to fit in are those at the margins of the group who are therefore afraid they might be excluded from it.

See also: The Importance of Cultural Fit

Participants in the study were offered up a relatively easy opportunity to cheat on a simple anagram test that they were given by the research team.  Their performance on the task was self-reported, with no way for the record to be validated against actual performance.  Of course, the researchers themselves had an easy way to check, as none of the anagrams given to them was actually solvable.

The catch to the research was that one group were informed that if they outperformed another participant seated in an adjacent room, other members of their own team would be given a cash bonus as a reward.  Each of the members of the two teams had met prior to the experiment, after which they were asked to vote which of their team mates should be cut from the team to perform the final group based task.

Alas, the votes were in fact rigged so that roughly 50 percent of the team believed that they were at risk of being cut.  It emerged that these individuals at risk reported solving many more of the unsolvable anagrams than their peers who were safe from being dropped.  The authors suggest that they were doing so in the hope that their fake scores would benefit the team and therefore ingratiate themselves with their colleagues.

What’s more, it emerged that this kind of behaviour was especially strong in participants who revealed themselves as having a very strong need to belong to a group.

Just wanting to fit in

A second experiment tested the hypothesis still further.  This time success in the anagram game was rewarded with an individual bonus that was not shared with ones team.  In other words, this test didn’t invoke any need for belonging, nor indeed any risk of exclusion from the group.  In this experiment, the instances of cheating dropped considerably, suggesting that the threat of exclusion both increases unethical behaviour and also does so in targeted ways aimed at improving our standing in the group.

It underlines the challenges organisations face, especially as there is a growing sense that people are recruited as much for cultural fit as for their talents and abilities.  The risk of ostracism and exclusion from such a group may prompt many of us to engage in altogether shady activities, which I’m sure is not what managers hope for.

See also: Does Every Workplace Need a Little Friction

Have you ever felt on the fringes of a group yourself and were you tempted to behave badly in order to try and fit in?  I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

Unethical for the sake of the group: Risk of social exclusion and pro-group unethical behavior




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