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Men's Morals Are Malleable

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Considering the purchase of a used car, but unsure whether the seller — who assures you the car runs like a dream — is trustworthy? New research suggests an easy way to increase the odds you’ll get the product you’ve been promised:

Buy it from a woman.

When it comes to negotiating a deal, “Males more readily justify moral misconduct by minimizing its consequences or otherwise excusing it,” write Laura Kray of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Haselhuhn of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Their study finds “a robust pattern by which men are more pragmatic in their ethical reasoning at the bargaining table than women.”

“Men’s competitive behavior, more so than women’s, appears to be motivated by situational threats to their masculinity,” the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “When men feel like they have something to prove or defend against, they become more aggressive and competitive.”

In four experiments, the researchers attempt to pinpoint the psychological factors underpinning this ethical gender gap. The first featured 115 undergraduate business students (55 men, 60 women) who read a scenario from an ethics column published in The New York Times Magazine.

The person in the moral quandary in the column very much wants to buy a piece of property, tear down the house that currently occupies it, and build a new one. “The problem is that the elderly couple who have lived there for more than 40 years love the house and assume I will maintain it,” the correspondent tells the ethicist. “If I reveal my plan, they may refuse to sell me the house and land. Am I ethically bound to tell?”

Participants rated the degree to which they felt the prospective buyer was morally obligated to tell the sellers what he or she intended to do with the house. They then completed a “masculinity implications” scale, in which they expressed their agreement or disagreement with such statements as, “Negotiations are part of a man’s world” and “Negotiators require masculine strength to prevail.”

Overall, men were more comfortable with the buyer concealing his intention to the sellers. Tellingly, “Males’ sensitivity to the masculinity implications of negotiations lowered their ethical standards,” Kray and Haselhuhn write.

This sensitivity to avoid being a wimp also encouraged egocentric thinking. In a subsequent experiment, men, but not women, found they could more easily morally justify falsifying the existence of a competing offer if they did the falsifying than if someone else did. That’s about as pure a measure of situational morality — a.k.a. hypocrisy — as one can imagine.

In another experiment, the researchers looked at “ethically questionable negotiating tactics,” such as making false promises or misrepresenting relevant information. They found that men, but not women, “demonstrated a consistent pragmatism to their ethical reasoning,” by saying they were willing to cut ethical corners when it was in their interest to do so.

Feeling pressure to prove themselves in such give-and-take settings, “men, but not women, become more lenient in their ethical standards,” the researchers conclude.

It is worth reiterating that the participants in these experiments were business students. Previous studies have suggested business majors have higher levels of self-interest and lower ethical standards than their peers; it’s not certain such a decisive gender divide would be found in the population as a whole. Then again, business students generally go into, well, business, making them the people we tend to negotiate with. So if you’re in the market for a pre-owned Prius, a good place to start might be Mary’s Motors.