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Hunger and thirst encourage unethical behaviour, but only to satisfy these basic needs

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Posted August 24, 2015

We all know that hungry people sometimes are quite grumpy. Now scientists from the University of Washington think they found the connection between hunger and bad behaviour. Their research showed that hungry people are more likely to commit unethical acts that would satisfy that hunger. In other words, in the quest for food people can perform actions that we would consider to be examples of bad behaviour. However, food has to be involved – hungry people are less likely to lie, cheat or steal if they cannot expect to satisfy their hunger by these actions.

Hungry and thirsty people are more prone to perform unethical actions, but strong ethical culture may help preventing that. It means that comfortable and satisfied employees are generally better and less likely to do something bad in their workplace. Image credit: GloriaJusto via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Hungry and thirsty people are more prone to perform unethical actions, but strong ethical culture may help preventing that. It means that comfortable and satisfied employees are generally better and less likely to do something bad in their workplace. Image credit: GloriaJusto via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Study also found that even in the state of hunger and thirst, people are less likely to involve themselves in unethical behaviour in clearly communicated ethical culture. However, in most cases these ethical norms of behaviour are not so relevant when all you can think of is obtaining physiological satiation. This is closely related to the prevailing theory in psychology, which says that physiological deprivation depletes willpower, leading to increased unethical behaviour for all manner of reasons. However, although most of the literature notes that only our willpower keeps us from doing bad, now scientists wanted to see if depletion of willpower could actually send people in the opposite direction from doing bad.

In order to understand what kind of behaviour can be driven by the physiological need for food, team of scientists designed five studies. In few of them, scientists wanted to compare behaviour of those who were hungry and those who were full. In order to do that, they administered a simple ethical test to students going in and coming out of a university cafeteria. Students were asked to self-report their performance on a set of impossible math problems. They were offered a reward of either snack food or office swag for every “correct” answer. Results were not surprising. Those participants who were heading to cafeteria often lied to get snacks, but did not lie to get a notebook or other office accessory. Other similar studies tested effects of thirst on behaviour and found similar results.

Explanation of such behaviour is rather simple. People who are very hungry or thirsty cannot think about anything else, including norms of behaviour, except satisfying their physiological needs. Professor Scott Reynolds, co-author of this research, noted that hungry people activate the system in the brain that focuses attention exclusively on getting food. He explained – “hunger is going to make us very focused on achieving the goal of getting food. And so that’s what drives our behaviour. And if our attention is directed toward getting food, then it’s not going to be attracted to all the other kinds of temptations that might be out there.”

Behavioural problems of hungry people are actually pretty relevant for our times. Business organizations around the world are trying to keep their employees behaving appropriately in their workplace. However, scientists note that deprivation of physiological needs is sometimes quite difficult to prevent, but it should not be encouraged. Although there are many corporations that say that hungry worker is a good worker, now scientists proved that good worker is well-rested and takes care of his basic body needs. This allows workers to concentrate on more important things, such as performing tasks directly related to their job.

Scientists also add that culture is influencing behaviours too. Culture can encourage bad or good behaviour. One of these cultural norms that help encourage ethical actions are rules and guidelines. For example, when students, participating in the study, were reminded about the university honour code, they were less likely to break the rules, even in situations when bending these rules would reward them by satisfying their need for food or drink. This allows for one conclusion – comfort in the workplace motivates more for good behaviour, which means that workers should not be deprived of their basic physiological needs. Furthermore, strong ethical culture and subtle reminders about the rules encourage ethical behaviour as well.

Source: University of Washington

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