Money is so corrupting that even the simple act of thinking about it can lead people to act in unethical ways, according to a recent study from the University of Utah and Harvard University.
Researchers split up roughly 300 participating undergraduate students into two groups. The first group was asked to perform activities that were associated with money-related words and images, and the second group participated in activities that were unrelated to money altogether.
Afterward, the participants were asked to make a series of illicit business decisions: to act dishonestly but earn more money, for example, or to hire a candidate who would share confidential information. The students who first participated in the money-related activities were more likely to engage in unethical behavior, the researchers found.
"These ﬁndings suggest that money is a more insidious corrupting factor than previously appreciated, as mere, subtle exposure to money can be a corrupting inﬂuence," they wrote.
The researchers also found that the directness of money's role in the activities had little effect on the outcome. Even students who participated in disguised money activities, such as word scrambles with money-related terms, were more likely to act in a corrupt way in the following experiments.
This study is not the first to observe a connection between cold hard cash and seedy behavior. A 2012 report found that rich people are not only more likely to lie, cheat and promote unethical behavior at work, but also to take candy from children. In that experiment, wealthier people took twice as much candy from a jar labeled "for children" than the poorer people in the same study.
Not only have some rich people been found more likely to take from others, they're also less likely to give their money away. While the wealthiest Americans donated 1.3 percent of their incomes in 2011, the poorest gave away on average 3.2 percent, according to a March report from The Atlantic.
Given the seemingly strong relationship between money and bad behavior, the authors of the Harvard and University of Utah study are calling for further research to help curb financial corruption in the workplace.
"Considering the signiﬁcant role of money in business organizations and everyday life, the idea that subtle reminders of money elicit changes in morality has important implications," they concluded in the study.