A Roomy Desk Or Car Seat Makes Us Feel Powerful—And Makes Us Act Less Ethically

A new study from researchers at leading business schools reveals that expansive physical settings (like having a big desk to stretch out while doing work or a large driver’s seat in an automobile) can cause individuals to feel more powerful. In turn, these feelings of power can elicit more dishonest behavior, such as stealing, cheating, and traffic violations. From the website of the Association for Psychological Science:

“’In everyday working and living environments, our body postures are incidentally expanded and contracted by our surroundings—by the seats in our cars, the furniture in and around workspaces, even the hallways in our offices—and these environments directly influence the propensity of dishonest behavior in our everyday lives,’ said Andy Yap, a key author of the research who spearheaded its development during his time at Columbia Business School.

The study states that while individuals may pay very little attention to ordinary and seemingly innocuous shifts in bodily posture, these subtle postural shifts can have tremendous impact on our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Building on previous research that expansive postures can lead to a state of power, and power can lead to dishonest behavior, the study found that expanded, nonverbal postures forced upon individuals by their environments could influence decisions and behaviors in ways that render people less honest.

‘This is a real concern. Our research shows that office managers should pay attention to the ergonomics of their workspaces. The results suggest that these physical spaces have tangible and real-world impact on our behaviors,’ said Andy Yap. The research, titled ‘The Ergonomics of Dishonesty,’ will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.” (Read more here.)

When I posted a couple of weeks ago about research showing that sleep-deprived people were more likely to act unethically, a reader named Anne Hetherington protested: “This research suggests that humans do not have fundamental ethical or belief systems. I do not believe that a lack of sleep can overturn deeply embedded beliefs.” Some readers might have similar doubts about the research described above. Could something as trivial as the roominess of our desk or car seat really “overturn deeply embedded beliefs”?

The answer is no—but that’s not what the authors of these two studies claim. Rather, they would point out that while all of us hold beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, we don’t always live up to our moral ideals. Sometimes we slip. And we’re more likely to slip given certain conditions in our bodies (a lack of sleep, which may reduce the mental resources with which we resist temptation) or in the world at large (a roominess in our personal environment, which may suggest to us that we’re powerful and can cut corners without consequence).

Our underlying beliefs haven’t been affected, but our ability to live up to them, in this moment, has. Haven’t we all experienced such slippage at time, doing things that we knew were wrong? This research shows that the reasons we let our ethics slide may be related to situational conditions, an insight that in turn offers us new avenues to promote ethical behavior.

Readers, what do you make of all this? Are you persuaded by the situational argument, or are you of a mind with Anne?

5 Responses to “A Roomy Desk Or Car Seat Makes Us Feel Powerful—And Makes Us Act Less Ethically”

  1. John Patten says:

    Hmmm…? To put another spin on that idea, the “dishonest behavior” described above could also be called a risk. The environment causes the user to feel more powerful, empowered, and as a result the individual takes more risks.

    I often hear a lot of discussion on how the classroom environment affects learning, encouraging students and teachers to get out of their comfort zones to promote learning and growth. There are a lot of folks that talk about the importance or influence of the work/classroom environment to promote risk and thinking “out of the box,” to generate new ideas. (Google, High Tech High, etc. etc.)

    This descriptions above sounds like the many of the same types of concepts, but with an individual with a little less education of the responsibilities that come with (the feeling) of power; power does not always lead to dishonest behavior.

    I do think our environment has an effect on how we think, as does the state of the individual, their state of mind, their physical ability, their level of education, their health, their mental health, their relationships, etc. etc.

  2. Scott Hadley says:

    IMO behavior is influenced, but not dictated, by beliefs. For example, take the case of drinking and driving. While under the influence, some people will drive even though (when sober) they believe drinking and driving is wrong. Alcohol affects the brain and impacts judgement. As does fatigue, hunger, thirst, arousal, fear, …

  3. Eric Lawton says:

    Sure, a wider seat is probably not enough to over-ride a “deeply embedded belief”, but I bet the participants in the infamous Stanford prison experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment) would have told you that they held deep beliefs that mistreating people the way they did. But it didn’t take much to change that.

  4. John Carter says:

    Wow, that is an intriguing result. I have always focused on ergonomics from the standpoint of comfort and supporting a healthy body, but it looks like it is going to need to be considered from a mental aspect as well.

  5. Barbara says:

    I have read that people who come into power experience a rise in testosterone. Maybe that’s part of the reason for such ethical “slippage” or lack of self discipline.

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