Sadness reduces unethical behavior, new study finds

New research suggests that inducing mild feelings of sadness can make people less likely to engage in dishonest and harmful acts, by heightening their sensitivity to the potential negative consequences of such behavior.

New research suggests that inducing mild feelings of sadness can make people less likely to engage in dishonest and harmful acts by heightening their sensitivity to the potential negative consequences of such behavior.

A new study has found that inducing a mildly sad emotional state reduced people’s likelihood of engaging in morally questionable behavior.

The “sadder but nicer” effect, as the researchers dubbed it, held true across different scenarios, even when the potential rewards for unethical actions were high.

The study, authored by Laura J. Noval, Günter K. Stahl, and Chen-Bo Zhong, was published in the Journal of Business Ethics on February 19, 2024.

What the Study Found

Across three experiments, the researchers recruited 611 business and economics students (50% women; average age 23) from several large universities in Germany, France, and Austria.

The researchers deployed vignettes and economic games to assess the participants’ dishonest intentions and actual selfish behavior.

For example, in Study 1, participants engaged in a “deception game,” where they could earn small amounts of money by lying to a partner about which payment option would most benefit that partner.

Studies 2 and 3 involved similar scenarios and incentivized tasks.

Sadness induction

A sample of the participants first underwent a brief “sadness induction.”

In those cases, the researchers had the participants read several emotionally resonant stories about the death of a loved one, or asked them to write about a time in their lives when they experienced loss, grief, or profound disappointment.

These participants were significantly less likely to deceive than those in neutral or happy states.

In Study 1, which used the deception game, 18% of participants in the sadness condition chose not to lie at all, compared to only 0-6% of those in the neutral and happiness conditions.

In Study 2, which involved hypothetical workplace scenarios, the “sad group” participants indicated they would be less likely to engage in dishonest acts like overbilling clients or lying to customers.

Their average likelihood of acting unethically was 3.90 on a 7-point scale, notably lower than the 4.78 and 5.11 scores in the control and happy conditions.

The “saddened” participants also reported being more attuned to the potential harm that their dishonest or selfish acts could cause others.

This heightened sensitivity to negative consequences seemed to be the key factor curbing their unethical conduct.

The effect remained robust even when the rewards for bad behavior were substantially increased: the sad participants remained less tempted by ill-gotten gains.

And in Study 3’s dictator game, where participants could selfishly allocate real money between themselves and a partner, those in the sad condition claimed significantly less cash (around 55% of the total stake) compared to “neutral state” participants (who took roughly 65% for themselves).

Implications and Practical Applications

While the effect sizes varied somewhat across studies and measures, the pattern was consistent: participants who were made to feel a little bit sad reliably left more money on the table, and indicated lower intentions to lie and cheat.

These findings have important practical implications for promoting ethical conduct.

Traditional approaches have focused on ramping up penalties and incentives, but this research suggests a different path: making the human costs of dishonest and selfish actions more vivid and salient.

The downsides of relentless positivity

Surprisingly, the results also indicate that workplace cultures of relentless positivity may have an unintended downside.

While sadness has been shown to have interpersonal and cognitive benefits, many companies and leaders discourage or even condemn the experience and expression of negative emotions.

Rather than always trying to induce good cheer, the authors propose, organizations could create some space for mild negative feelings and utilize them to nudge better behavior.

And at the individual level, briefly inducing a sad emotional state – for example by watching a tear-jerker movie scene, listening to a melancholic song, or engaging in quiet reflection on a painful memory – could serve as a simple, if counterintuitive, self-nudge toward acting more ethically.

Of course, the researchers are not suggesting anyone wallow in misery or depression, but rather that they make use of temporary “scheduled sadness” to pre-commit to ethical moral conduct.

Future studies will be needed to test these interventions and examine the influence of sadness in real-world settings.

As the authors point out, this study explored only mild sadness, “rather than high levels of sadness that would instead mirror depression or despair, and that would be difficult and ethically problematic to manipulate in an experimental context.”

Future research might consider addressing a more intense experience of sadness, “which may potentially lead to different or even opposing effects in ethical decision-making and behavior.”

By illuminating the unexpected link between feeling bad and behaving well, this study opens up promising new avenues for curbing everyday immorality and promoting integrity.

“We have provided evidence for the moral value of sadness,” the authors write, “by showing that sadness decreases morally questionable behavior across a variety of contexts involving potential harm.”

Moreover, they conclude, people may be insufficiently unaware of the potential harm caused by their own dishonest and harmful acts, in which case “a simple emotion manipulation can shift this sensitivity, tipping the balance toward a more positive morality.”

Study Details

  • Title: “The Sadder but Nicer Effect: How Incidental Sadness Reduces Morally Questionable Behavior”
  • Authors: Laura J. Noval, Günter K. Stahl, and Chen-Bo Zhong
  • Journal: Journal of Business Ethics
  • Publication Date: February 19, 2024
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-023-05611-w