The Malleability of Male Morality?

May 4, 2012

Here’s a piece of red meat for you to chew on over the weekend.

The Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC – Berkeley has released a new pair of studies on sex differences in formulating ethical standards. This has obvious implications for the sexual marketplace, as it suggests that men and women may hold very different views on what constitutes deceptive or manipulative behavior. 

From the online research and policy blog Pacific Standard:

When it comes to negotiating a deal, “Males more readily justify moral misconduct by minimizing its consequences or otherwise excusing it,” write Laura Kray of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Haselhuhn of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Their study finds “a robust pattern by which men are more pragmatic in their ethical reasoning at the bargaining table than women.”

“Men’s competitive behavior, more so than women’s, appears to be motivated by situational threats to their masculinity,” the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “When men feel like they have something to prove or defend against, they become more aggressive and competitive.”

From the study Male Pragmatism in Ethical Decision Making:

Men are more accepting of ethically questionable negotiation tactics (Lewicki & Robinson, 1998; Robinson, Lewicki, & Donahue, 2000) and engage in more deception than women in strategic interactions (Dreber & Johannesson, 2008). 


The researchers hypothesize the key difference between men and women:

  • Men:  We expect men’s achievement goals to guide their ethics.
  • Women: What benefits them personally and what helps them to accomplish their goals are expected to be irrelevant to their ethical standards.

Study 1

In the first study, 96 MBA students (64M, 32F) read this reader question from Randy Cohen’s Ethicist column in the New York Times:

I have an opportunity to buy the property of my dreams. The problem is that the elderly couple who have lived there for more than 40 years love the house and assume that I will maintain it. I intend to tear it down and build a more modern house on this beautiful property. If I reveal my plan, they may refuse to sell me the house and the land. Am I ethically bound to tell?

(Note: The Ethicist advised the Reader that withholding this information that the sellers considered paramount amounted to tacit deceit and was unethical.)

Men were generally more inclined to approve withholding the information, but more interestingly, their position depended on whether they represented a theoretical Buyer (Don’t tell!) or Seller (You should probably tell.) Conversely, more women advised telling the truth to the Sellers, regardless of which party they were representing.

Full Disclosure: As a former MBA student, I would absolutely not tell the Sellers of my plans to tear down their home. I always felt that Randy Cohen had a hair trigger on ethics questions, and this is no exception. So I’m with Team Man on this one.


Study 2

In the second study, 411 MBA and undergrad business students particpated (53% M, 47% F). Two surveys were administered. The first measured the particpants’ Implicit Negotiation Beliefs. The second was the Self-reported Inappropriate Negotiation Strategies (SINS) scale (Robinson, Lewicki, & Donahue, 2000), which gauges the perceived appropriateness of ethically ambiguous negotiation tactics. Areas include:

1) traditional competitive bargaining

2) attacking opponent’s network

3) false promises

4) misrepresentation

5) inappropriate information gathering

Men rated the ambiguous tactics as more acceptable than women did. The authors conclude:

We began by asking whether a hypothetical Bernadette Madoff would have committed the same infamously unethical actions as the real Bernie. The current research suggests not and, importantly, offers an explanation as to why not. Though men and women may share common social and achievement motivations, they appear to differ in the extent to which their experiences and beliefs are called upon to set ethical standards. By relying more heavily on their motivations, men derive considerable leeway in setting ethical standards, rendering them more vulnerable to ethical lapses.


In recent comment threads here at HUS, there has been considerable debate about the ethical responsibility of men in being honest about their intentions with regard to sex. Though I have always defined a cad as a male who uses deceit to get sex, it’s important to note that men and women may define deceit differently. In addition, they may differ in their views with regard to the responsibility of the other party to detect deceit.

In the context of sex and relationships, women might keep this in mind. At the very least, the studies suggest that men may decide with a clear conscience that they are not required to divulge their true motivations or level of interest in you other than sexually.

In view of this, relying on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach is especially foolish. Even asking questions outright may not be sufficient to suss out true motives. The only sensible approach from a female point of view is to delay sex until you have the true measure of the man  – as defined by his actions rather than his words.

And oh yeah, you might want to avoid MBA types. Or grow a pair.


C0mpletely off topic: It’s Cinco de Mayo tomorrow! Here’s a great recipe for margaritas:

Cook’s Illustrated Best Fresh Margaritas