Harvard Study Finds Link Between Hormones and Unethical Behavior

Researchers found that high levels of testosterone and cortisol can lead to cheating.

Hormones already get blamed for everything from mood swings to acne—now, a new Harvard Business School (HBS) study is saying they could be partly responsible for unethical behavior, too.

In the study, researchers measured 120 participants’ levels of testosterone, a hormone associated with dominance and status, and cortisol, the stress hormone, and then asked them to complete and self-grade a math test. Participants were given $10 and told they would get an extra $1 for each correct answer, giving them a reason to inflate grades.

Of the 44 percent who ended up lying about their score, the researchers found that the worst cheaters had high levels of both of the measured hormones. The researchers also tested hormone levels after the test, and found that people who cheated had much lower levels of cortisol after the test than before, suggesting that cheating actually relieved stress in those individuals.

While the experiment can’t be reduced to a simple cause-and-effect equation, the study is among the first to show a clear connection between unethical behavior and hormones. Francesca Gino, a business administration professor at HBS and one of the study’s authors, said in a statement that the research suggests bad behavior is partially subconscious:

“In the general area of ethics, we seem to have learned a lot over the last few decades about when and why good people do bad things,” Francesca Gino says. “But we wondered if there were biological or physiological factors that could help to explain the misconduct that we see so frequently in the real world.”

Seemingly, yes—so much so that the researchers think their findings could eventually be of use to businesses and schools, in the sense that they could potentially manipulate company culture to reduce stress and, in turn, wrongdoing. “If you’re setting up an environment that affects people’s hormones in a certain way, you might affect the choices they make when it comes to something as important as cheating,” Gino said in the statement.