A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has found that people who engage in dishonest behaviour are often seen as less capable at doing their jobs.
“Although arguments can be made that an individual’s moral behaviour is, or should be, irrelevant to their overall competence, we found consistent support that immoral behaviour reduced judgements of people’s competence,” said lead author Jennifer Stellar, PhD, of the University of Toronto.
Together with colleague Robb Willer, PhD, of Stanford University, Stellar had conducted a total of six experiments involving more than 1,500 participants.
In the experiments, volunteers were presented with depictions of individuals engaging in a variety of activities — some moral (e.g., donating money to charity), some immoral (e.g., shoplifting) — and then asked to rate their overall competence or competence at a specific task.
Consistently, the participants rated individuals who had committed moral transgressions as less capable in every way.
This was surprising because previous research by the group had shown that people were not generally willing to conflate moral character and skill.
“We found that most people rated immoral behaviour in one’s private life as irrelevant to determining how good that person was at their job. Essentially, people said they didn’t think they would use moral information in that way, but when they were provided with it, they did,” said Stellar.
A possible explanation of the results has to do with social intelligence, i.e., one’s ability to navigate complex social situations, which involves adaptability, perspective-taking, perception-management, etc.
In one of the studies, Stellar and Willer managed to counteract the concerns about social intelligence by telling participants that immoral individuals in the study were rated high in social intelligence by their colleagues.
Surely enough, armed with this information, participants no longer saw dishonest behaviour as indicative of lower professional capacity, but rather perceived the morally transgressive, yet socially capable individuals as Machiavellian, cunning, and strategic – not simply incompetent.