Hormones are a less-scrutinized variable in moral decision making. High levels of testosterone have been linked to diminished generosity and empathy, but the connections between testosterone and corruption—defined by Lausanne's researchers as ignoring social norms for personal gain at others’ expense—hadn’t been sketched until this study.
To trace this relationship, researchers designed two experiments—both variants of what’s called “the dictator game”—that culled subjects from a Swiss university. In the first setup, subjects were randomly assigned to be leaders or followers. Each leader was solely responsible for deciding how to distribute prize money given to the group. For example, leaders at one point chose between “$100 for me; $70 for you,” “$90 for me; $90 for you,” and “$150 for me; $10 for you.” These numbers were selected such that the more the leader chose the receive, the less his or her followers would get. The leaders with more power—that is, with more followers or more distribution choices—behaved more greedily.
The second experiment was more ambitious. Weeks before subjects were assigned leader/follower roles, they filled out a survey about the fairest way to distribute the money. The vast majority of people agreed that the “$100 for me; $70 for you” arrangement was fair—which allowed the researchers to declare that picking “$150 for me; $10 for you” would be violating a norm that everyone agreed on. Subjects also had their mouths swabbed to measure testosterone levels.
During the experiments, once subjects had been named either leaders or followers, they were frequently reminded of the survey results, making them aware of what their peers expected of them. When leaders’ power over a situation was relatively low, roughly half of them stayed true to the social norms they helped develop; this dropped to 19 percent when they were given more power. Also, the greediest behavior was linked to high baseline levels of testosterone.
“This is an interesting finding,” says Cornell professor Vanessa Bohns, “but I would caution against interpreting it too broadly.” According to Bohns, it’s not so much that power and testosterone cause people to behave corruptly—it’s that they make people less inhibited. “In another context, high-power people may be more likely to jump in and help in an emergency because they are similarly more likely to violate the social norm of standing around,” she says.
Susan Case, a professor of organizational behavior at Case Western, has similar concerns about the applicability of the study’s conclusion. Case notes that the average age of the subjects is about 21 years—an age too collegiate to use in generalizing about the corporate world. “Most of the leaders near or at the top of such organizations are nearer the 50-plus threshold where testosterone declines,” she says. “They soften their style and ... include others in how they think about outcomes of their decisions.”