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Does air pollution lead to more unethical behavior?

While the negative health effects of air pollution are well known, there may be an "ethical cost," too.

Anxiety caused by exposure to pollution may make people more prone to cheating and unethical behavior, according to new research. And that can be a driver behind the higher crime rates in high-pollution areas.

“We wanted to know what explains this connection between air pollution and criminal activity,” says Julia Lee, assistant professor of management and organizations at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “We tested the theory that the stress and anxiety that comes from living with air pollution is a contributing factor. Our results support the contention that air pollution not only corrupts people’s health, but can also contaminate their morality.”

Lee’s coauthors on the study, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, are Jackson Lu and Adam Galinsky of Columbia University and Francesca Gino of Harvard University.

The researchers first analyzed nine years’ worth of air pollution data from the US Environmental Protection Agency and crime statistics from the FBI. They controlled for factors such as demographic variables, law enforcement levels, and poverty rates. The analysis revealed high levels of air pollution in a county predicted higher incidents of crime in nearly every category.

A series of experiments in the United States and India found a connection among pollution, anxiety, and unethical behavior. Since it’s unethical to expose people directly to pollution, test subjects were shown pictures of either polluted or unpolluted city scenes. Then researchers asked them to describe or write about how they saw that area and reflect on how they would feel as they walk in that area and breathe the air.

Coders (blind to the purpose of the study) rated the written descriptions on eight dimensions—distressed, irritable, nervous, scared, enthusiastic, excited, happy, and relaxed.

After describing or writing their feelings, researchers asked the test subjects to complete supposedly unrelated tasks with small financial rewards for correct answers or successful outcomes.

In one experiment, researchers told subjects of a glitch that allowed them to uncover correct answers on a word association test. In another, they were given a dice-roll game and told to self-report the outcome, with a higher score earning them more money.

In each study, subjects who looked at the polluted photo were significantly more likely to both express anxiety and stress in their descriptions, and to cheat on the tasks.

“What this tells us is that there’s an ethical cost to air pollution,” Lee says. “It increases anxiety and this leads to unethical behavior. It’s a mechanism from behavioral science that can help explain the connection between air pollution and higher crime rates.”

Source: University of Michigan

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