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Financial Crisis Made Us More Likely To Cheat, Steal: 'Think Robin Hood'

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The financial crisis didn't just hurt the economy. It also may have done major damage to our collective moral standards, a new study suggests.

After suffering a financial loss, people are more willing to lie, cheat and steal to improve their situation, according to a study conducted by a group of researchers including Dan Ariely of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

As Ariely explained to The Huffington Post, people under financial duress may feel justified in behaving dishonestly because they feel they are righting a wrong. "Think Robin Hood," Ariely said. The financially deprived are also usually mentally exhausted, leading them to relax their ethical standards and act immorally.

In one experiment for the study, 201 U.S. college students were split into groups, and some were told that they had suffered financial loss unfairly. The students were then given a 50-50 chance to win $1 by flipping a coin or spinning an arrow. The researchers gave the study participants ample room to cheat, letting them decide for themselves which side of the coin or spinner outcome signified winning. Nearly 70 percent of participants who were told that they had been unfairly deprived reported that they had won, far outpacing the other groups -- suggesting they had cheated to win the money.

The full study, which was led by Nina Mazar of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, has been accepted for publication by the journal "Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes."

There is no question that in the aftermath of the financial crisis many Americans were stripped of some of their financial security. From 2009-2011, the bottom 93 percent of households lost 4 percent of their net worth, according to data from Pew Research. Also, the average American is earning 4.4 percent less now than when the Great Recession ended four years ago.

This makes the researchers' findings more alarming, suggesting there are a lot more Americans inclined to break the rules today than before the crisis. Americans feel a strong sense of injustice about their current financial distress and largely blame the questionable behavior of big banks, Ariely said. Many have pointed out that, while Main Street continues to suffer, Wall Street has unfairly avoided prosecution for its own immoral acts leading up to the crisis.

Americans may feel more entitled to take matters of justice into their own hands, and morally questionable behavior could be the result.

"Nobody has said they [the big banks] were wrong, nobody has said they would do things differently, so I think trust has eroded in a dramatic way," Ariely said, "and unless we do something I don't know how it's going to be fixed."

All that said, previous research has found that it's not just the financially unstable who will act immorally to get what they want. In another recent study, rich people were found to be more likely to take candy from children, lie and cheat to increase their chances of winning.

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