Is being honest a lot of work? The answer to that question can affect how dishonestly people behave at work, research finds.

Julia Lee of the University of Michigan says the prevalence and high cost of employee fraud inspired the research. Estimates put the cost at up to $3.7 trillion worldwide of dishonest behavior by employees.

“There is so much research on whether morality or doing the right thing is driven by deliberation or moral intuition,” says Lee, assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and lead author of the study to appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“The link to what real people think about this was missing in the research. When you see a kid drowning, most people jump in without thinking. For others, it might require a lot of mental calculation to do the right thing.”

Lee says she found that previous research on the topic of honesty and effort didn’t probe the theories individuals held about the subject, and that seemed a crucial part of understanding why people behave dishonestly.

“In today’s world truth really matters,” she says. “Your implicit belief about whether honesty requires effort or not might construct how you think about reality.”

Lee and coauthors conducted three studies to measure whether thinking honesty takes effort could predict subsequent dishonest behavior because it helps people justify their behaviors.

In the first study, they found that the more an individual associated honesty with effort, the more likely they were to be dishonest. In the second, the researchers demonstrated that believing honesty is effortful increased dishonesty compared with believing honesty is effortless. And the third study explored how the theories interacted with the strength of situations at hand.

The results show that the theory that being honest requires effort increased dishonesty only when the situation didn’t present a strong temptation to cheat. But when the temptation to be dishonest was strong, the theory provided justification to cheat.

Lee says the research also made her ponder how ethics is taught in business school. Some of the exercises give students an impossible choice such as “save your spouse or kill the company.”

“You give students an excuse,” she says. “When you think a decision is effortful and therefore costly, you can use that as a justification to do the wrong thing.”

Source: University of Michigan

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