People more likely to behave unethically toward groups than individuals

People are more likely to act deceptively when dealing with a group than an individual, according to research from the UBC Sauder School of Business.

A job candidate, for example, would be more likely to exaggerate their qualifications during a panel interview than a one-on-one.

“We found that individuals act more unethically toward groups than individual targets — and how closely connected they are to the group comes into play,” says co-author Dr. Daniel Skarlicki, a professor at the UBC Sauder School of Business.

Unlike people’s more nuanced impression of individuals, groups are often perceived as competitive, aggressive, and negative, and less like a “real” entity, Dr. Skarlicki explains. As a result, people tend to see groups as less personal, and less deserving of moral treatment — which in turn excuses less ethical behaviour toward them.

“It’s almost as though my responsibility to the other side is diluted, because there are four of them,” Dr. Skarlicki says. “You don’t get the same sense of a personal connection that you get with one person. And when that connection goes away, deception is more likely.”

Termed “The Plurality Effect,” this phenomenon was observed across various experiments in the study. In one scenario, participants acting as advisors were prone to dishonesty when interacting with a group compared to an individual.

Another experiment focused on mock job interviews, revealing a higher likelihood of deceptive behaviour when facing a panel rather than an individual interviewer. Researchers also surveyed participants on the extent to which they felt they had a moral or ethical obligation to the interviewer or panel.

A person’s connection to the group can also make a difference. People tend to show greater moral concern toward individuals in their circles, or “in-group” — which can include friends, family members, and colleagues, and people whose stories have affected them in some way.

“There is strong evidence that you will be more deceptive to the out-group versus the in-group, because you feel relatively more responsibility toward the in-group and you like them more,” Dr. Skarlicki says. “If we go back in time, the out-group is whoever you’re competing with for food. It’s evolutionary.”

The findings could aid in everything from job interviews to customer interactions to international negotiations, Dr. Skarlicki says. Instead of group interviews, employers might choose to have a series of one-on-one meetings. One-on-one interactions could also be a winning strategy in political negotiations.

At the same time, people can reduce the risk of deception by trying to boost their moral concern about the other party.

“By merely changing who the target is, or how they’re perceived, you can impact someone’s willingness to deceive,” Dr. Skarlicki says. “We think that’s pretty profound.”

Past studies have shown that ethical behaviour such as charitable giving tends to be higher for an individual than it is for a group — this is called the singularity effect — but it was not known whether the inverse relationship was also true: that people were more likely to behave unethically toward groups.

Titled “The Plurality Effect: People behave more unethically toward group than individual targets,” the study builds on research about moral decision-making and social identity theory, and was co-authored with Hsuan-Che Huang from UBC Sauder, Dr. Ruodan Shao from York University, Dr. Kristina Diekmann from University of Utah, and Dr. Ann Tenbrunsel from the University of Notre Dame.