On bad apples, bunches, and trickle-down morality

I’ve never been a huge fan of the old cliché that one bad apple spoils the entire bunch. Going by the actual phenomenon on which the saying is based (the ethylene gas apples release as they ripen stimulates ripening in nearby apples, thus hastening their eventual decay), the metaphor seems inapt when applied to human behavior. The implication is that one person’s flawed moral character irrevocably contaminates the character of those nearby. My quibble isn’t with its treatment of the power of social influence—the history of research in Social Psychology is nothing if not riddled with examples of corrupting social influences—but rather with the insinuation that these new moral flaws are permanent, that the same principle couldn’t work in reverse to improve moral character.

Then again, perhaps the saying is not meant to reflect the belief that moral violators corrupt those around them, but rather the inference that anyone who associates with a moral violator must also possess the same fundamental moral flaws. Indeed, recent work has shown that we treat those with a genetic relationship with a moral transgressor no differently than the person who actually committed the crime.

This raises an interesting, and perhaps terrifying, question: could even a loose association with someone who committed a crime, such as a co-worker, contaminate me in the eyes of others?

Social Psychologists Takuya Sawaoka and Benoît Monin explored this very possibility in a recent paper, and found that ethical violations by one member of an organization led to suspicion of everyone in the organization—particularly when the transgressor held some status in the organization. The logic is that because high-status group members (e.g. CEOs) are believed to embody the enduring traits of the organization, their transgressions are similarly reflective of the entire group’s moral character.

In a series of studies, Sawaoka and Monin presented participants with an organizational hierarchy chart (e.g. for a marketing firm, a research center, or a medical association), and read about someone within that organization who had committed an ethical violation (e.g. engaged in deceptive marketing practices). When the transgressor was at the top of the organizational hierarchy (rather than at the bottom), participants had a more negative impression of the entire group’s moral character. As such, participants were highly suspicious of another group member who had no direct connection to the crime, even recommending against hiring that person for another job. This was true even when the high-status violator acted purely in self-interest, and even when the other group member had done nothing to earn that suspicion.

To be sure, the implications of the work are limited by the fact that they relied solely on internet-based participants responding to hypothetical scenarios. Participants were also generally given very little information about the organization or the people involved, so it would be nice to see this work replicated using considerably more realistic stimuli and situations. Along those same lines, it was also unclear whether it could be considered rational, or at least reasonable, for participants to hold the organizations more accountable for the actions of a CEO than a low-level employee. For instance, participants may have inferred that an ethical violation by someone of high status will be much greater in magnitude than a violation by someone of low status; office drones steal thousands, CEOs steal millions. It seems more reasonable to infer shared culpability for truly massive violations than for petty theft.

Of course, perhaps that very brand of reasoning is what allows us to feel justified in our suspicions even when they might not be warranted. Having your job prospects forever tainted by one’s mere association with a corporation that collapsed under the weight of the CEO’s fraud is clearly unfair, to say the least. These findings do at least suggest one way that those in such unfortunate circumstances could salvage their reputations: actively distancing the organization from the transgressor. If the transgressor can be painted as an atypical member of the organization, people should not infer that the rest of the group suffers from the same moral deficits. Perhaps, this is how to flip that cliché around: if the bad apple can be seen as something else entirely, then the rest of the bunch will not be seen as spoiled.

Sawaoka, T., & Monin, B. (2015). Moral suspicion trickles down. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(3), 334–342. doi:10.1177/1948550614555027

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