Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

What Causes Unethical Behavior? A Meta-Analysis to Set an Agenda for Public Administration Research

Nicola Belle & Paola Cantarelli
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 77, Iss. 3, pp. 327–339


This article uses meta-analysis to synthesize 137 experiments in 73 articles on the causes of unethical behavior. Results show that exposure to in-group members who misbehave or to others who benefit from unethical actions, greed, egocentrism, self-justification, exposure to incremental dishonesty, loss aversion, challenging performance goals, or time pressure increase unethical behavior. In contrast, monitoring of employees, moral reminders, and individuals’ willingness to maintain a positive self-view decrease unethical conduct. Findings on the effect of self-control depletion on unethical behavior are mixed. Results also present subgroup analyses and several measures of study heterogeneity and likelihood of publication bias. The implications are of interest to both scholars and practitioners. The article concludes by discussing which of the factors analyzed should gain prominence in public administration research and uncovering several unexplored causes of unethical behavior.

From the Discussion

Among the factors that our meta-analyses identified as determinants of unethical behavior, the following may be elevated to prominence for public administration research and practice. First, results from the meta-analyses on social influences suggest that being exposed to corrupted colleagues may enhance the likelihood that one engages in unethical conduct. These findings are particularly relevant because “[c]orruption in the public sector hampers the efficiency of public services, undermines confidence in public institutions and increases the cost of public transactions” (OECD 2015 ). Moreover, corruption “may distort government ’ s public resource allocations” (Liu and Mikesell 2014 , 346).