Sep 08, 2022 10 min read
How Does Anticipated Emotion from a Decision Outcome Determine Our Ethical Behaviour? A Working Paper
There are several models that depict how and why individuals behave unethically; these models incorporate components such as the moral development of a person, the importance of an ethical issue, traits of the decision-maker, and the context of decision-making. Recently, there has been renewed interest in the role of emotion in ethical decision-making. We review the current literature on emotion and ethical decision-making and put forth a model, in which we argue that the dominant integral (anticipated) emotion related to a decision outcome determines whether the decision will be ethical or unethical. We further argue that, even in the case of nonconscious unethical decisions, the role of the related dominant emotion is critical. We, then, derive a few propositions.
The influence of emotion on our thinking and decision-making has been long recognized. According to the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, moral judgments are not made through cognitive reasoning; rather, they arise as an “immediate feeling and finer
internal sense” (Hume, 1977/1960, p.2). Carrying this view forward, several scholars argued that emotion has a causal effect on behaviour (Loewenstein et al., 2001; Russell, 2003).
The experiential quality of emotion related to anticipated outcomes has been discussed in detail by Zeelenberg and Pieters (2006) while developing their ‘feeling-is-for-doing’ hypothesis. Drawing sustenance from James’ (1890/1990) Pragmatism lectures that emphasized “my thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing” (p.669), Zeelenberg and Pieters (2006) contended that emotion should serve a practical purpose in decision-making. Emotions are the primary motivational system for goal pursuit, and the experiential qualities of the integral emotion(such as anxiety about a planned theft) determine how people behave (Zeelenberg et al., 2008). Their concept is similar to that of Roseman et al. (1994) who articulated the motivational aspects of discrete emotions (fear leading to avoidance), terming them as emotivations.
The importance of experiential emotion in decision-making was also highlighted by Baumeister et al. (2007). They argued that emotion plays unconsciously the role of a feedback mechanism in decision-making. A previous action could have triggered an emotional reaction which leaves an ‘emotional residue’ in memory, cognitively interlaced with specific action-outcome. For instance, a conduct of harming a person would have evoked a strong feeling of guilt in an individual, which remains as an emotional residue moderating any future inclination to cause harm. At any decision-point, there could be many such active emotional residues that
are connected to anticipated decision outcomes, competing to influence behaviour.
In sum, the above theoretical positions indicate that contemplating a decision can evoke multiple emotions related to the decision, consciously or unconsciously, shaping how we behave.
Our Integral Emotion Model of Unethical Behaviour (Figure 1) builds on these concepts and further integrates the dual-process conscious and non conscious evaluations to explain different types of unethical behaviour (UB). When an individual contemplates an unethical action consciously, different integral emotions come into play. Integral emotions are those emotions which are rooted in decision outcomes (Lerner et al., 2015). For example, a person may feel anxiety when he attempts to steal (anxiety of detection and punishment). In contrast, incidental emotions are carryover emotions. For instance, the same thief may also feel a bout of sadness because of some personal tragedy that happened to him earlier, which is an incidental emotion.
The integral emotion can be generally classified as seeking avoidance or seeking approach. The individual may feel anxiety of possible detection of the planned UB and may also feel elevation from the anticipated gains of an unethical act. Each of these emotions have different experiential qualities that either persuade or dissuade the individual towards an unethical act. For instance, anxiety of detection can dissuade, whereas the elevated feeling of security while complying with the instruction of an unethical leader can persuade a person to act unethically. When there are such multiple anticipated emotions that are either persuasive or dissuasive (toward UB), the most dominant one should be giving the direction of action. We define dominant integral emotion as the most influential integral emotion among the
group of emotions acting on an individual who contemplates unethical action – the dominant integral emotion persuades or dissuades the individual from the intended UB.
Thus, we propose:
Proposition 1: At a decision point, employee’s dominant integral emotion guides action through its direction (persuading and dissuading).
Further, based on the dual-process theories of moral behaviour (Crockett, 2018; Cushman, 2013; Hirsh et al., 2018; Reynolds, 2006), we surmise that non conscious UB is also affected by integral emotion. In brief, the dual-process theories of morality suggest that an individual may respond automatically to certain stimuli that calls for UB (based on previous experiences or habits), whereas, certain other stimuli for UB are evaluated more consciously. For instance, when an employee accepts a bribe from a supplier in the first few instances, his/her consciousness is in a high arousal state where each branch of the decision tree is evaluated (monetary gains, the threat of detection). When this act becomes routine with consistent monetary gains and no detection, evaluation stops, and UB becomes automatic in a low arousal state of consciousness. Following the dual-process theory and the reasoning of Baumeister et al. (2007), we argue that the routinized automatic UB has a related dominant emotion residue that pops up at the decision-point, guiding action.
The following paragraphs elaborate on the types of dominant emotion and their relationship with UB. To delineate the possible mechanisms through which dominant emotion motivates or de-motivates UB, in this work, we discuss four different families of emotions: self-enhancing, self-harming, other-enhancing and other-harming emotions. We define self-enhancing emotions as those linked to one’s own cause either intrinsically or extrinsically such as a gain in wealth, power, safety and other factors that enhance an individual’s self-interest. We discuss elevation and pride in this category. Similarly, we
denote other-enhancing emotions as those linked to the causes that stem from the favourable treatment of others such as favouritism, peer support and social standing. We discuss gratitude, and shame in this category. Further, we define self-harming emotions as emotion related to potential harm towards oneself. We discuss the role of sadness and anxiety in this category. Finally, we denote other-harming emotion as the emotion associated with potential harm to others. We discuss anger and guilt in this group.
First, we look at how these moral emotions determine UB in the conscious and deliberate evaluative state.
Following dual-process theories, we envisage the conscious emotion-evaluation-process to be systematic, slow, and effortful. In this mode, we propose that the integral emotions related to the unethical decision culminate in a dominant integral emotion, translating into UB.
Self-enhancing emotions – Pride and Elevation
Mazar et al. (2008) found that though “honest people” commit minor ethical transgressions, they are dissuaded from committing major unethicality to experience the feeling associated with a positive self-concept. In individuals who have a high moral identity (a construct that denotes the importance of being moral to one’s identity), a feeling of pride predominates their thoughts and pushes away temptations for UB. Employees expressing pride are known to have a belief in their own capabilities and status (Tiedens et al., 2000). Employees may also desire to feel pride and self-esteem by not indulging in an unethical action, playing the role of
a dominant integral emotion acting against committing UB. Conversely, the expected reward from unethical action may evoke positive feelings of elevation (anticipated financial incentive, power and job safety); it is also associated with the satisfaction one achieves by pleasing a supportive supervisor. For instance, Machiavellians manipulate others for pro-self benefit and to experience power (Harrison et al., 2018), which gives an elevated feeling. Empirical studies reveal that elevated feeling associated with personal identification with transformational leaders is a cause of explicit UEB (Effelsberg et al., 2014). For instance, leaders such as Adolf Hitler motivated followers to undertake unethical actions in a feeling of elevation (Greenbaum et al., 2020). If the self-enhancing emotion of elevation dominates among the concoction of multiple integral affects, it acts as a persuading dominant emotion thereby motivating UB.
This leads to our propositions,
Proposition 2: While contemplating an unethical behaviour consciously, if individuals experience a dominant integral self-enhancing emotion of elevation due to anticipated gains in wealth, power and safety, they are more likely to behave unethically.
Proposition 3: While contemplating an unethical behaviour consciously, if individuals experience a dominant integral self-enhancing emotion of pride due to their moral identity centrality, they are more unlikely to behave unethically.
Self-harming emotions – Sadness and Anxiety
Sadness and its extreme form depression are known to increase preferences for highly risky options (Raghunathan & Pham, 1999). If sadness emerges as the dominant integral affect, it persuades or pushes the employee towards self harm. Depressed employees are known to engage in self-abuse, such as absenteeism, time theft, alcoholism, and substance abuse. Sadness and depression, therefore, persuade an employee toward self-harming unethical
behaviour. On the other hand, when there is a high anxiety of self-harm, for example, a threat of detection and punishment for the intended unethical behaviour, the employee may experience a dominant integral self-harming emotion which is dissuading. Anxiety is known to increase threat perception and is associated with self-interested and self-preservation behaviors (Kouchaki & Desai, 2015). Additionally, it signals one to reduce uncertainty, support low-risk actions and prompts risk-averse behaviors (George & Dane, 2016). Anxiety is known to induce self-defence mechanisms associated with flight response to psychologically protect oneself. Hence, the self-harming integral emotion of anxiety dissuades the employee from performing UB.
Thus, we propose,
Proposition 4: While contemplating an unethical behaviour consciously, if individuals experience a dominant integral self-harming emotion of sadness due to helplessness, they are more likely to behave unethically.
Proposition 5: While contemplating an unethical behaviour consciously, if individuals experience a dominant integral self-harming emotion of anxiety due to perceived threat of detection and punishment, they are more unlikely to behave unethically.
Table 1. Moral Emotions and Unethical Behaviour
Elevation (Wealth, power, safety, prestige)
Gratitude (in-group favoritism, peer support, personal identification)
Anger (organizational injustice)
Pride – (moral identity centrality, self-concept maintenance)
(Fear of punishment)
(Loss of social standing, ostracism)
Guilt (unjustifiable harm to others)
Other-enhancing emotions – Shame and Gratitude
Employees are known to perform exemplification behaviors in order to protect their self-image among their colleagues on the experience of shame due to moral violations (Bonner et al., 2017). Employees are known to believe that their reputation will be affected by indulging in UB, thereby making them feel worthless (Tangney, 1991). This could dissuade individuals from UB due to an anticipation of ostracism (Quade et al., 2017) and loss of social support (Scott et al., 2013). Group norms and group identity plays a key role in helping individuals experience shame and thereby increase ethical behavior (Murphy & Kiffin-Petersen, 2017). Hence if shame emerges as a dominant integral emotion, it could dissuade individuals from indulging in UEB. Gratitude is a prevalent outcome of favourable interpersonal relationship and favourable treatment at workplace (Gordon et al., 2012). Gratitude is known to induce felt obligation to give back to those who favoured them (McCullough et al., 2001). For instance, perceived organizational support is associated with employee’s gratitude towards their organization (Ford et al., 2018). Empirical results show that high gratitude towards leaders resulted in unethical behavior at workplace, even for those with high moral identity (Lu et al., 2021). Researchers believe employee’s gratitude towards their leaders might help them to act unethically by justifying the need to reciprocate, especially when employees have enjoyed the fruit of leader’s UB (Carnevale et al., 2021). Hence if gratitude emerges as a dominant integral affect, it could persuade individuals to indulge in UB.
Proposition 6: While contemplating an unethical behaviour consciously, if individuals experience a dominant integral other-enhancing emotion of gratitude due to in-group favouritism, peer-support and personal or organizational identification, they are more likely to behave unethically.
Proposition 7: While contemplating an unethical behaviour consciously, if individuals experience a dominant integral other-enhancing emotion of shame due to anticipated ostracism and loss of peer-support, they are more unlikely to behave unethically.
Other-harming emotions – Guilt and Anger
Guilt involves one’s perception that they have done something unethical (Tangney, 1991). Experience of guilt reminds one of their self-conscience and brings about regret (Abraham et al., 2017). Guilt is considered a beneficial moral emotion due to its association with positive ethical outcomes (Sheikh & Janoff-Bulman, 2010). Cohen et al. (2012) found that people who are easily impacted by guilt are less likely to commit immorality. For such guilt-prone employees, the dominant integral emotion is more often than not dissuading because guilt is believed to attenuate deviant behavior justification and tendencies (Harvey et al., 2017).
Empirical research shows that perception of injustice is associated with willingness towards deviant behavior (Mullen & Nadler, 2008), often caused by anger towards the prevalent unfairness and unsupportive treatment (Ford et al., 2018). Anger plays a key role in explaining how employees react to unfairness at workplace through counterproductive work behaviours (CWBs) (Barclay & Kiefer, 2019). One key reason for CWB is the presence of aggressiveness related to injustice thereby enabling a justification of deviant behavior (Harvey et al., 2017). Research has also found that narcissists are more conducive of experiencing anger and performing CWB (Penney & Spector, 2002). Similarly, individuals working in stressful working conditions experience anger and end up exhibiting CWB (Ilie et al., 2012). Hence, the dominant integral emotion of anger persuades or motivates one to indulge in UEB.
Proposition 8: While contemplating an unethical behaviour consciously, if individuals experience a dominant integral other-harming emotion of anger due organizational injustice, they are more likely to behave unethically.
Proposition 9: While contemplating an unethical behaviour consciously, if individuals experience a dominant integral other-harming emotion of guilt due to the anticipated harm caused by their action, they are more unlikely to behave unethically.
Having discussed how the different types of motivational forces associated with the integral emotion cause explicit UEBs, let us now examine their implicit counterparts.
Non conscious state.
The conscious state is not always necessary to commit UEB because the dominant emotion of the intended UB may be stored in memory as a schema from a previous experience. Such information stored and retrieved has an emotional significance (Pessoa, 2009). When the stimulus for unethical behaviour matches an existing schema, the automatic process is first activated, conserving the scarce cognitive resources that are needed for other cognitive tasks (Reynolds, 2006). For example, when a stimulus for theft is received, the schema related to theft shall be activated. If there is any previous incidence of severe punishments (or its observational experience), the related dominant emotion of this schema shall be a dissuading, prompting the employee to decide against the UB. This shall happen automatically without deliberation. Oftentimes we think of those schemas as intuition, which are nothing but “emotionally charged judgements that arise through rapid, non conscious, and holistic associations” (Dane & Pratt, 2007, p.40). We contend that these stored schemas have dominant emotion that direct the perpetrator to automatic and non conscious unethicality.
In sum, we propose,
Proposition 10: In non conscious evaluation state situations, any of the memory-based dominant self-enhancing, other-enhancing, self-harming or other-harming integral emotion emerges, thereby dissuading or persuading non conscious UB.
Social scientists have known for long that emotions affect our decision-making. Emotions can be categorized as integral (creating anticipated emotions tied to the decision) or incidental (a carry over emotion from an unrelated incident). In our Integral Emotion Model of Unethical Behaviour, we organize moral emotions as self-enhancing, self-harming, other-enhancing and other-harming. We argue that when unethical behaviour is contemplated, multiple integral emotions are vying to influence the decision-outcome, one of which will be dominant. According to the nature of this integral emotion, the impulse for an unethical action would be persuading or dissuading. We further stated that even in non conscious decision-making, the stored (residual) dominant integral emotion related to the proposed unethical action precipitates corresponding ethical or unethical decision. By encouraging and promoting dissuading moral emotions such as guilt and pride, managers may be able to control unethical behaviour of employees.
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