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Is the Financial Crisis Becoming a Moral Crisis?

"When people actually experience (financial) deprivation they seem to apply their moral standards more leniently. Thus, people…judge deprived moral offenders who cheat for financial gains less harshly.”

| BY Donald Liebenson

The economic collapse may have done damage beyond people’s financial situations. A new study finds that it may have compromised out moral standards as well. Researchers from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business have found that financial loss and duress increase tendencies to cheat for financial gain.

Henny Youngman had a joke about ethics: “A father is explaining ethics to his son, who is about to go into business. "Suppose a woman comes in and orders a hundred dollars worth of material. You wrap it up, and you give it to her. She pays you with a $100 bill. But as she goes out the door you realize she's given you two $100 bills. Now, here's where the ethics come in: should you or should you not tell your partner?"

But it’s no laughing matter, Duke researchers found. In investigating whether financial deprivation might shift people’s moral standards and consequently compromise their moral decisions, they concluded that “People believe financial deprivation should not excuse immoral conduct; when people actually experience deprivation they seem to apply their moral standards more leniently. Thus, people…judge deprived moral offenders who cheat for financial gains less harshly.”

"Think Robin Hood," Duke researcher Dan Ariely told Huffington Post.

In one of the study’s experiments, 201 U.S. college students (90 women and 111 men) were offered an opportunity to win $1 in a quick game of chance in which some participants flipped a coin and others spun a game spinner. All they had to do was self-report whether they had won or lost. Nearly 70 percent (67.14 percent) of those who, as part of the experiment were told they had been unfairly financially deprived, reported they had won, a significantly higher percentage of the other groups.

Consumer confidence in the economy has taken a hit in the wake of the government shutdown and prolonged gridlock over the debt ceiling. A new CNN poll finds that only 29 percent of Americans believe current economic conditions are good, down four-points since late September before the shutdown began. A majority (59 percent) predict poor economic conditions a year from now, compared to 40 percent who said the economy would be in good shape next year at this time. This is the lowest level of optimism expressed by the public in two years.

This does not bode well for the workplace, the study finds. “To the extent that (economic uncertainty) contributes to people’s feelings of financial deprivation, people might engage in workplace sabotage, pilfering and other dishonest conduct.”

The study further found that people are “generally unable to foresee that deprivation encourages them to have immorally, while also encouraging them to judge other deprived immoral actors more leniently.”

About the Author

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.  

A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.