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An ace up their sleeve

Competition Clouds Morality, Multi-Pronged Study Finds

Competition negatively impacts moral behavior – a new study by ILR School Assistant Professor Brian Lucas, ILR Ph.D. student Zachariah Berry and dozens of other co-authors affirms that.

“Competition and Moral Behavior: A Meta-analysis of Forty-five Crowd-sourced Experimental Designs” was published May 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lucas and Berry are among 45 teams that collaborated to investigate the research question: Does competition influence moral behavior? It does, they learned. To get there, teams independently designed an experiment to test the question.

Then all 45 experiments were executed and analyzed by the project’s lead researcher, Christoph Huber at the WU Vienna University of Economics and Business.

The study included more than 18,000 participants and found a small negative effect of competition on moral behavior.

The research also seizes the moment to inform a wider discussion across academia about how to produce reliable findings.

Said Lucas: “There is talk about research moving in this direction: Rather than a single research team testing a hypothesis, many research teams are testing a hypothesis in coordination with one another. This allows them to scale their resources and increase confidence in the reliability of the findings.”

Although the competition-morality question has been debated by scholars for centuries, single studies are limited by their smaller size and the noise that is introduced by different research teams operating independently and studying the hypothesis in different ways, Lucas said.

“Because we all worked from the same hypothesis, sampling process and approach to data analysis, these sources of noise were minimized across our studies,” he said.

Importantly, even studies yielding non-significant results were included in the analysis, which avoids the “file drawer” problem where non-significant results do not get accounted for in the research literature, Lucas said.

“For instance, the experiment Zach and I contributed to the project found a negative but nonsignificant effect of a competitive task environment on donation behavior,” he said. “On its own, this study likely would not have been publishable, but together with the other teams’ studies, it is one piece of a bigger picture that finds a small, but significant negative effect of competition on moral behavior.”

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