You can remind yourself how happy you are in general, so you don’t have to cut corners, or (in case of financial temptation) how much money you have in savings, so you don’t have to earn more by questionable means. But according to two researchers at the Kellogg School, there’s another important element that you probably wouldn’t imagine: a psychological phenomenon called “regulatory adaptation.”
Decades of research have identified two basic approaches to motivation: a promotion-focused style, which emphasizes aspiration and thinking about positive outcomes, and a prevention-focused style, which focuses on maintaining safety, fulfilling obligations, and to avoid problems. Most of us instinctively favor one or the other, but these inclinations are not fixed and can be somewhat context-dependent.
We experience normative fit when the way we approach a goal matches our preferred style (imagine a promotion-focused person suggesting ways to make things go well) and maladaptive when there is a mismatch between tactics and style (imagine a person who focuses on promoting making a list of potential pitfalls).
Previous studies have shown that when people experience regulatory fit, things feel more natural and they become more engaged. In fact, regulatory application enhances persuasiveness of an appeal, increases the number of people enjoy the tasksand he makes them more willing to spend money. Also experiencing fitness acts as an amplifiermaking positive experiences feel especially good and negative experiences feel especially bad.
Could it also affect our ethical decision-making? Professor of Marketing Angela Lee, who has studied regulatory fit for years, thought so. So he teamed up with the assistant professor of marketing Hetana Aharwhose research focuses on moral beliefs.
Achar suspected that the experience of regulatory adaptation would strengthen people’s preexisting moral inclinations: people with a strong moral compass would be even more likely to make moral choices, and those with a flexible moral compass would be even more likely to make unethical choices. And, in several experiments, that’s exactly what she and Lee found.
“Regulatory accommodation makes people do whatever these I think it’s right,” says Achar. “For one person, that might mean reporting your taxes accurately. To another person, not reporting your taxes might be the right thing to do because they believe the government is cheating them out of money. Regulatory adjustment pushes people in the direction they’re already going.”
Regulatory adaptation and ethical tendencies
To understand how regulatory fit might affect ethical decision making, researchers first had to induce the feeling of “just right” of regulatory fit or the feeling of “something wrong” of regulatory inappropriateness in study participants.
So, in one of the studies, they started by recruiting 493 online participants, who were randomly assigned to either the promotion-focused group (and asked to write about their aspirations) or the prevention-focused group (and asked to write about their their obligations).
Then, to induce regulatory adjustment, the researchers had half of the promotion-focused group write about what they could do proactively to achieve their goals and half of the prevention-focused group write about pitfalls that they had to avoid in fulfilling their obligations. To motivate nonfitters, the remaining promotion-focused group wrote about pitfalls to avoid in pursuit of their goals, and the remaining participants in the prevention-focused group wrote about proactive strategies for meeting their obligations.
After all that, participants were asked to imagine themselves in a tempting situation that involved cheating on a long-term partner by having unprotected sex with an attractive female acquaintance. Participants then rated how likely they would be to have sex in that situation.
To avoid influencing responses to the moral scenario, the researchers had collected information about moral beliefs in a separate session with the same group of participants, held several weeks earlier. Participants rated how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “Sometimes getting ahead is more important than following the rules” and “Cheating is appropriate behavior because no one gets hurt.”
These responses helped the researchers identify degrees of moral commitment, from “low disengagers”—people who viewed morality as binding and immorality as wrong—to “high disengagers”—those with a flexible moral compass, who would separate transgressive behaviors with ethics. ease.
When they put all of these elements—regulatory fit, ethical disengagement, and ethical decision making—together, the researchers found an interesting pattern. First of all, morally flexible participants (i.e., high disengaged) were generally more likely to cheat on their partner. Further, experiencing regulatory fit compared to misfits made them even more likely to have sex with the acquaintance, while those with a strong moral compass (ie, low disengagers) were even less likely to cheat. In other words, says Lee, “the app intensifies your predisposition—whatever you think is right, you’re more likely to do.” Whether participants faced promotion or preemptive matches made no difference.
And the pattern wasn’t just limited to cheating on a romantic partner. When the researchers repeated the same experiment with different moral scenarios, the same results emerged. Normative adjustment shaped participants’ willingness to cheat on their taxes and how severely they believed criminals should be punished. Even responses to a more abstract scenario involving a “tragedy of the commons” followed the same pattern, affecting participants’ willingness to sacrifice for the common good according to their underlying moral tendencies.
“Finding a phenomenon that occurs in all these different ways of thinking about right and wrong—I think that’s pretty exciting,” says Achar.
Lying for profit, Telling the truth at a cost
But Achar and Lee weren’t content to just study hypothetical scenarios. For their latest experiment, they studied ethical decision-making in practice, using an experiment devised by economist Uri Gneezy that involves either lying for financial gain or harm by telling the truth.
First, they collected the same moral commitment scores used in the previous study from an original pool of 1,000 participants. After a few weeks, these participants were asked to take part in an apparently different study that was actually the main experiment, and 601 returned.
After completing the regulatory adaptation prompts from the previous study, participants were informed that they had been paired with another study participant, “Partner 2”. (In fact, there was no Partner 2.) Participants were then presented with two scenarios: in Choice A, they would receive 25 cents, and in Partner 2 they would receive 20 cents. In Option B, Partner 2 would receive 25 cents and they would receive only 20. Participants were told that Partner 2 would choose between Option A and Option B without knowing what either option actually entailed. However, as Partner 1, participants could send Partner 2 a message about the options.
Participants then chose one of two messages to send to Partner 2: either an economically beneficial lie, “Option A will earn Partner 2 more money than Option B,” or the unfavorable truth, “Option B will make partner 2 more money than option ONE.”
In the real world, as in the experiment, regulatory adaptation intensified participants’ moral inclinations. When experiencing competence compared to incompetents, morally flexible individuals were more likely to lie to Partner 2, whereas individuals with strong moral values were less likely to lie.
Those who are moral and ethical “are even more honest under regulatory adjustment, at the cost of losing money,” says Achar. “So even when we incentivize these decisions, we see the same effect. I think that shows how powerful this effect is.”
Regulatory Fit in the real world
If regulatory accommodation makes the morally flexible more likely to lie, cheat, and steal, should we be trying to provoke inappropriately at every turn? (If you’re asking that question, you might have a prevention-focused mindset.) Probably not, says Lee. It’s worth remembering that most people are fundamentally honest, and regulatory adjustment will help nudge them further in that direction.
In fact, he suggests, managers can even notice whether their employees are more promotion- or prevention-focused and help them adopt strategies that match their style. (Those who are more driven to achieve their hopes and aspirations than to fulfill their duties and obligations tend to be promotion-focused; the opposite is true for prevention-focused.)
“Understanding where people are coming from and then giving them guidance that fits their orientation will make them do what they think is right.” And for most of us, that’s nothing to worry about.