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Picturing Unethical Behavior With Eyes Closed Can Persuade People to Be Honest, New Chicago Booth Study Finds

February 04, 2013

CHICAGO (January 24, 2011) – Corporate scandals and unethical conduct by employees are nothing new, but very little research has looked into how to prevent people from crossing ethical boundaries. A recent study by faculty at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Harvard Business School offers one simple strategy: Close your eyes.

Keeping your eyes closed while visualizing an immoral action can arouse more intense emotions than when the eyes are opened. Because emotions often drive beliefs about whether a behavior is acceptable, people are more likely to make ethical decisions when their eyes are shut, according to the study by Eugene Caruso, assistant professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth and Francesca Gino, associate professor of business administration at Harvard.

Bad behavior will seem more inexcusable if it were imagined with eyes closed rather than opened. This strong emotional reaction may make people more sensitive to what is right and wrong and, as a result, influence them to act more honestly. Similarly, a good deed will appear more clearly as the right thing to do if considered with eyes closed, which can encourage people to be especially truthful, the research found.

The study, which appears in the February issue of the journal Cognition, included tests to demonstrate the power of closing one’s eyes. In one experiment, participants who had their eyes shut were more likely to believe that inflating the number of hours worked to get more money is unethical than those who listened to the same scenario with their eyes open. Participants who had their eyes closed also said they were less likely to cheat if faced with a similar situation.

The authors also find evidence that people can more easily picture unethical behavior that is described to them if their eyes are closed, which subsequently affects how they feel about it. Participants who had their eyes opened had to be given specific instructions to imagine the same behavior in order to get a similar effect. Thus, being able to vividly imagine unethical action is what heightens emotions and makes people disapprove more of corrupt behavior, the study concluded.