Physical Environment Affects Honesty And Behavior
June 25, 2013

Big Desk? Big Seat? You May Be More Likely To Be Dishonest

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Lord Acton is credited with saying “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A new study involving some of the leading business schools in the nation, led by Columbia Business School, reveals Lord Acton may have gotten it right.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, demonstrates that expansive physical settings, such as having a big desk to stretch out while doing work or a large driver's seat in an automobile, can cause people to feel more powerful. These feelings of power can elicit more dishonest behavior in those people, including stealing, cheating and even traffic violations.

"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 from Columbia Business School.

Although most of us pay very little attention to ordinary and seemingly innocuous shifts in body posture, according to the study these subtle postural shifts can have tremendous impact on our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Prior studies have shown expansive postures can lead to a state of power, and power can lead to dishonest behavior. The current study built upon these findings, revealing 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.

Four studies, conducted in the field and the laboratory, were combined for the study’s findings. One of the four manipulated the expansiveness of workspaces in the lab, testing whether "incidentally" expanded bodies (shaped organically by one's environment) led to more dishonesty on a test. Another looked at whether participants in a more expansive driver's seat would be more likely to "hit and run" when incentivized to go fast in a video-game driving simulation.

The team also performed an observational field study to extend the results to a real-world context, testing the ecological validity of the effect by examining whether automobile drivers' seat size predicted the violation of parking laws in New York City. The findings revealed that cars with more expansive driver’s seats were more likely to be parked illegally on New York City streets.