Close business relationships do not protect you from cheating

Research recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research presents an interesting puzzle. It suggests that close rapport between business partners does not eliminate opportunism, which the authors define as ‘the practice of engaging in actions that sacrifice ethical principles to benefit oneself at the expense of others‘. However, the paper posits that the level of rapport changes the type of situation in which opportunism is likely to take place.

The paper in question was authored by Sandy D. Jap, Diana C. Robertson, Aric Rindfleisch and Ryan Hamilton. The article is entitle ‘Low-Stakes Opportunism‘ and was published in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research. At the time of writing this post, the paper is available for download, free of charge, here.

The findings from the paper may be very succinctly summarised as thus:

  • It is widely accepted that, in a business setting, the chances of someone behaving opportunistically increase for high stakes situations.
  • To reduce this likelihood, firms may implement measures – such as reciprocal investment or encouraging face to face interactions – to increase rapport.
  • However, Jap and colleagues’ paper defends that not only are people still likely to engage in opportunistic behaviour when there is high rapport between the parties, but that they are more likely to do so for low stakes situations.

In other words, getting psychologically close to a business partner means that they are less likely to cheat in critical situations but, conversely, they are more likely to cheat in lesser ones. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, it seems.

The authors believe that this puzzling finding is explained by the occurrence of ‘morally malleable reasoning’. In simplified terms, morally malleable reasoning means that, because we are flawed decision makers, our assessment of the costs and benefits of morally questionable behaviour changes with the situation. That is, we may self-justify opportunistic behaviour in high-rapport business relationships with arguments like ‘they will not mind’ or ‘they would approve of this behaviour’. Moreover, the authors suggest that respondents justify the cheating in light of the long term (positive) contribution to the relationship – I think that it is something equivalent to saying ‘I am engaging in behaviour x for our / the business partner’s own good, anyway’.

In my view, the findings need to be read with GREAT care because they are meant to refer to business situations and, yet, the study was based in a series of experiments with MBA and undergraduate students. Still, it seems to me that the findings raise interesting questions regarding the role of human nature vs. context in cheating, regarding the type of cheating we may be exposed to in business, and the definition of moral behaviour (as something malleable rather than black or white).

I would be delighted to read your thoughts on the findings from this study.

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