June 13, 2013 at 1:09 PM ET
It's often said that money corrupts. But a new study says that just the thought of getting cash will do the trick.
The report by University of Utah and Harvard researchers found that individuals who could gain monetarily through unethical behavior were more likely to demonstrate that behavior than those who weren't offered a financial gain.
"We were interested in why good people would do bad behavior," said Kristin Smith-Crowe, a management professor and co-author of the study released last month. "We certainly found that the love of money is corrupting and just the mere exposure to it makes people do bad things."
Using 324 undergraduate students from the university, Smith-Crowe and her colleagues conducted four separate "games" in two different groups. One group was told of a financial reward for the behavior, the other was told there was no financial reward for doing the same behavior.
In one game, students were presented with a series of scenarios in which an unethical act was committed. They were asked how likely they would be to engage in the same unethical acts for money. (The other group was asked the same question without the monetary reward.)
In another, they played a "deception game," in which a group could earn more money by lying rather than telling the truth. (No reward to the second group for lying.)
The third game presented the students with a scenario in which they could choose to hire a candidate who promises to share insider information on a competitor if hired. (No insider information on the decision to hire someone for the second group.)
In the final trial, students engaged in a performance task in which they could earn more money by being dishonest rather than being honest. (Again, no reward to the second group for being dishonest.)
The study found that participants who were told they could earn money were more likely to demonstrate unethical intentions, decisions, and behavior than the students in the separate controlled condition— without the possibility of a financial reward.
"The study didn't ask people to do horrible acts; there were more mundane like stealing office supplies," Smith-Crowe said.
"But it just shows how insidious this can be. These were normal people and this is something we can all be affected by," she said.
Smith-Crowe said that participants promised money set aside moral issues when making a hypothetical business decision.
"They completely lost track of everything else except pursuing their self-interests," Smith-Crowe added. "They focused on the cost benefit of their decisions rather than how it might affect other people."
This study is not the last word on the issue.
"The next question is how business decisions can be framed so that money won't be corrupting," Smith-Crowe said. "We're looking into that. We hope there's a positive story out there."
© 2013 CNBC LLC. All Rights Reserved