I find this study a very interesting validation of Noah Brand’s theory of the Success Myth.
The researchers hypothesized that, because men are socialized to “get the job done” and solve the problem at hand, and experience more pressure to succeed in business, men are more likely to make business ethics decisions practically: that is, to judge ethical dilemmas based on what will help them achieve their goals, as opposed to what would actually be the ethical thing to do.
The research involved two studies, both of a few hundred MBA or undergrad business students. The first study asked whether it is an ethical duty to tell an elderly couple who loves their house and wants to sell it to someone who will maintain it that you, in fact, do NOT intend on maintaining their precious house and will tear it down. (My answer, for the curious, is yes.) Men were more likely than women to recommend that the buyers’ intentions not be revealed and, interestingly, tended to recommend that the buyers’ intentions be revealed if they identified with the seller, but not if they identified with the seller.
The second study involved administering two surveys to the students. Men tended to rate ethically ambiguous tactics (i.e. traditional competitive bargaining, attacking the opponent’s network, false promises, misrepresentation, and inappropriate information gathering) as less ethically ambiguous than women did; men who believed that negotiating prowess was innate tended to be more in support of ethically ambiguous tactics, while men who believed it could be learned tended not to be, an association that literally did not exist for women.
What does this tell us? First: THIS IS A STUDY OF MBAS THIS IS A STUDY OF MBAS THIS IS A STUDY OF MBAS. That means that it can be reasonably generalized to the population “businessmen,” insofar as male MBA students are similar to the overall businessman population, but it cannot be reasonably generalized to the population “men.” Plumbers, philosophers, or rock stars may have very different moral codes! We already know that MBAs are assholes*, male MBAs just happen to be assholier. That doesn’t mean that men are more assholish than women in general. So for the rest of this I’m going to be talking about MBAs.
To me, this seems like evidence in favor of the existence of the Success Myth. Most of the people who are MBAs are going to be pretty firmly in the grip of the Success Myth, given that the good points of most other majors involve intellectual curiosity and making one a well-rounded person, and the good points of the business major is that you will make a ton of money once you graduate. However, the Success Myth is specifically gendered: men are far more likely to approve of the use of ruthless tactics to succeed, perhaps because their self-worth is more tied up in their success. If you believe your worth as a human being is related to how much money you make, you’re going to use worse tactics to make that money. That’s just common sense.
I also find interesting the result that believing that negotiation skill is innate makes you more likely to approve of ethically ambiguous tactics. My theory? Believing that you can learn to negotiate better offers you some buffer for your self-esteem. If you can learn to negotiate and you don’t make the sale, you can comfort yourself with the idea that you can do better next time. If you don’t make the sale and you believe that negotiating skill is innate, you’re a shit negotiator, which means you aren’t a success, which saps your self-worth. People are going to be willing to use far more ethically ambiguous tactics if their sense of self-worth is on the line.
What this shows is that the Success Myth matters for more than people’s mental health. Think about all the businesspeople who made unethical choices over the years– if you’re having trouble recalling one, just walk two feet down Wall Street, I’m sure you’ll find one. If we could teach the next generation of businessmen that they can get their sense of self-worth not from their success– perhaps from being an actually good person– then we might get to stop dealing with the negative externalities of their attempts to get great wealth. And that’s something everyone needs.
*unless you read NSWATM, in which case you are not an asshole and are, in fact, awesome. I <3 my readers.