Jessica A. Kennedy and Maurice E. Schweitzer
Wharton Behavioral Lab
Individuals who accuse others of unethical behavior can derive significant benefits. Compared to individuals who do not make accusations, accusers engender greater trust and are perceived to have higher ethical standards. In Study 1, accusations increased trust in the accuser and lowered trust in the target. In Study 2, we find that accusations elevate trust in the accuser by boosting perceptions of the accuser’s ethical standards. In Study 3, we find that accusations boosted both attitudinal and behavioral trust in the accuser, decreased trust in the target, and promoted relationship conflict within the group. In Study 4, we examine the moderating role of moral hypocrisy. Compared to individuals who did not make an accusation, individuals who made an accusation were trusted more if they had acted ethically but not if they had acted unethically. Taken together, we find that accusations have significant interpersonal consequences. In addition to harming accused targets, accusations can substantially benefit accusers.
Here is part of the Discussion:
It is possible, however, that even as accusations promote group conflict, accusations could benefit organizations by enforcing norms and promoting ethical behavior. To ensure ethical conduct, organizations must set an ethical tone (Mayer et al., 2013). To do so, organizations need to encourage detection and punishment of unethical behavior. Punishment of norm violators has been conceptualized as an altruistic behavior (Fehr & Gachter, 2000). Our findings challenge this conceptualization. Rather than reflecting altruism, accusers may derive substantial personal benefits from punishing norm violators. The trust benefits of making an accusation provide a reason for even the most self-interested actors to intervene when they perceive unethical activity. That is, even when self-interest is the norm (e.g., Pillutla & Chen, 1999), individuals have trust incentives to openly oppose unethical behavior.
The research is here.