Edited by Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved December 30, 2015 (received for review July 30, 2015)
Competition is prevalent. People often resort to unethical means to win (e.g., the recent Volkswagen scandal). Not surprisingly, competition is central to the study of economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and more. Although we know much about contestants’ behavior before and during competitions, we know little about contestants’ behavior after the competition has ended. Connecting postcompetition behaviors with preceding competition experience, we find that after a competition is over winners behave more dishonestly than losers in an unrelated subsequent task. Furthermore, the subsequent unethical behavior effect seems to depend on winning, rather than on mere success. Providing insight into the issue is important in gaining understanding of how unethical behavior may cascade from exposure to competitive settings.
Winning a competition engenders subsequent unrelated unethical behavior. Five studies reveal that after a competition has taken place winners behave more dishonestly than competition losers. Studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that winning a competition increases the likelihood of winners to steal money from their counterparts in a subsequent unrelated task. Studies 3a and 3b demonstrate that the effect holds only when winning means performing better than others (i.e., determined in reference to others) but not when success is determined by chance or in reference to a personal goal. Finally, study 4 demonstrates that a possible mechanism underlying the effect is an enhanced sense of entitlement among competition winners.
#competition #behavioral_ethics #behavioral_economics #decision_making #corruption
Life, both personal and professional, is beset with challenges and rivalries. Success is often determined by one’s ability to outstrip the competition. Although competition motivates individuals to work harder to obtain better outcomes it may also lead to deleterious effects, such as increasing dishonesty in pursuit of competitive advantage and decreasing prosocial behavior. Indeed, the literature offers important insights regarding the propensity of contestants to behave in prosocial or asocial manners before and during competitions (1, 2). We know only little about contestants’ behavior after the competition has ended. The current research aims at filling this gap. In particular, we ask: Who is more likely to subsequently engage in unrelated unethical behaviors—winners or losers?
Competition outcomes are by definition relative. The results are determined by the ranking of the competitor relative to other contestants. Because performance outcome is determined relative to others, competition evinces social comparisons (3, 4). Enhanced social comparison can in turn result in two contrasting effects. On one hand, because losers have access to fewer resources than winners, they may be more motivated to use asocial behaviors to enhance their resources. Indeed, several laboratory studies show that losing tends to provoke subsequent dishonest behavior (5⇓–7), suggesting increased motivation to behave unethically when in a position of disadvantage (8). On the other hand, one may expect that the increased prominence of social comparison in competition will evince a sense of entitlement among winners (9, 10). The sense of entitlement, in turn, facilitates dishonest behavior among winners (6, 11). This reasoning points to the opposite prediction, namely that winners are more inclined to behave dishonestly than losers.