Can hunger make you cheat?
In 2018, the English word ‘hangry’ was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary. A combination of ‘hungry’ and ‘angry’, the word is defined as “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.” A state of mind most of us already know (from others, of course). But can hunger affect our moral compass in relation to direct monetary gains – can it make us cheat? A group of researchers from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University decided to explore this question.
“Of course there is a correlation between feeling hungry and the inclination to cheat for monetary gains,” you might think. And if you do, you are far from the only one.
When PhD student Christian Truelsen Elbæk prepared the study together with a group of fellow researchers, they encountered a fair deal of scepticism from their colleagues and academic peers. The reason for this criticism was that the answer was obvious. Self-evident, almost:
“Of course there is a correlation between feeling hungry and the inclination to cheat for monetary gains,” was the general opinion.
And the researchers shared this hypothesis, as Christian Truelsen Elbæk, associate professor Panagiotis Mitkidis from the Department of Management, associate professor Lene Aarøe from the Department of Political Science and former associate professor at Aarhus BSS Tobias Otterbring (now University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway) started an experiment with 230 Danish participants.
Several studies have previously shown that acute hunger can make people more protective of themselves, more greedy and more likely to cheat for food compared to other rewards. In addition, previous research suggests that the desire for money is a modern derivative of a primitive desire for food.
At the same time however, research in moral psychology has found that people are less likely to cheat for money than other gains, as this is perceived as closer to stealing and thus more unethical.
For this reason, the researchers found it important to conduct a specific study of the direct correlation between hunger and cheating for monetary gains, a correlation previously left unexplored.
The researchers put forward the hypothesis that “being in an acute hungry (vs. satiated) state increases individuals' propensity to cheat for monetary gains.”
We have a very important result which may advance our overall understanding of how scarcity shapes people’s moral behaviour
PhD student Christian Truelsen Elbæk, Department of Management, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University
To their great surprise, the result of the experiment was that hunger does not, in fact, increase the propensity to cheat for monetary gains. The researchers have published this result in the scientific article ”Honestly hungry: Acute hunger does not increase unethical economic behaviour” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
”It is a surprising result. Not least because several people around us – and we ourselves – believed the correlation to be evident. As it turns out that this is not the case, we have a very important result which may advance our overall understanding of how scarcity shapes people’s moral behaviour,” says Christian Truelsen Elbæk.
Because not only did the study show that there is no correlation between hunger and cheating for monetary gains. It was also not possible to demonstrate the additional hypotheses that the participants’ childhood socioeconomic status, trait-self-control and moral identity would influence the tendency to cheat for money. These factors neither predicted nor moderated the participants’ cheating behaviour.
“There are some negative stereotypes that associate people who experience a scarcity of resources with bad moral values. These stereotypes can be very stigmatising, but our results directly counter these conceptions,” says associate professor of political science Lene Aarøe.
However, the researchers insist that this is an area in need of further studies.
“We want to emphasise that research in this exact area – the effect of hunger on the inclination to cheat for monetary gains – is very limited. This makes it important to follow up our study with further research so that we might improve our understanding of how different states of mind affect people’s judgement and decisions,” says Christian Truelsen Elbæk.
What the researchers did
The 230 participants in the experiment were asked not to consume food or beverages for at least four hours prior to the lab session. On arrival, the participants had their blood glucose levels measured and were divided into two groups at random. The groups either got 40 cl of ordinary Sprite with sugar or Sprite Zero with artificial sweeteners. Previous research has shown that the two types of Sprite are almost indistinguishable in terms of flavour.
After ten minutes, during which the participants were asked to fill out a survey of questions, the participants had their blood glucose levels measured again. The participants were then asked to participate in a computer game of dice, which has also been used in previous research.
The game is played by ‘rolling’ a die 20 times. The participants gained money corresponding to double the eye on the die, except for the number six, which did not yield a reward. For instance, rolling a two equalled 4 DKK/65 US cents in reward, and the introduction to the experiment emphasised the possibility of direct monetary reward.
However, the participants had to report the amount they rolled in a separate reporting box on the PC. This allowed participants to overstate their performance in the game, and the research assistant in charge of running the experiment had meanwhile left the laboratory, ensuring the participants every opportunity to act freely.
Since the game was played on a computer, the researchers were subsequently able to identify what participants had rolled and what they had decided to report for pay-out.
Facts about the study:
We strive to live up to the Danish universities' principles for good research communication. Therefore, the article is supplemented with the following information:
|Type of study:
|Randomised behavioural experiment with two groups (hungry vs. satiated)
All participants did not eat or drink for at least four hours before the experiment began.
Subsequently, their hunger was manipulated by having the participants consume 40 cl of either Sprite or Sprite Zero.
The participants’ physiological state of hunger was measured three times in the form of individual blood glucose levels.
Their inclination to cheat for monetary gains was measured by a game of dice, in which the participants were free to overstate their performance in the game, thus achieving higher financial rewards by cheating.
|The Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University has financed this study with a grant of DKK 71,235.
|Conflicts of interest
|Link to the scientific article
|PhD student Christian Truelsen Elbæk, Department of Management, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University