The Contaminating Effect of Social Capital: Upper-Class Networks Increase Unethical Behavior
Research Seminar
12 May 2023 (Fri)
9:00am – 10:30am
LSK Rm5047
Prof. Jiyin Cao, CUHK-Shenzhen

Having friends in high places is often considered necessary to achieve success. Indeed, having connections with upper-class individuals offers instrumental benefits, from better jobs to higher salaries. Despite the tangible benefits that upper-class network contacts offer, we find that these networks have a dark side: the increased potential for unethical behavior. We propose that because upper-class individuals are less constrained in their behavior, individuals with many upper-class contacts will perceive their network contacts as having looser social norms. As a result, individuals with upper-class network ties will view morality as more relative and will be more likely to engage in unethical behavior. To test our core hypothesis that having upperclass contacts increases unethical behavior, we conducted six multi-method studies (archival, field, quasiexperimental, and experimental) involving a range of samples (CEOs, nationally representative adults, student roommates) from multiple cultures. Importantly, we demonstrate that the effects of upper-class networks on a focal person’s unethical behavior occur over and above their own social class (thereby ruling out a class homophily effect) and the level of unethicality of their network contacts (thereby ruling out direct imitation). Overall, this research takes a property of networks (its class composition), links it to perceptions of that network (the perceived norm looseness of one’s network contacts) and connects it to a psychological mindset(moral relativism) that ultimately affects unethical behavior. These findings demonstrate the benefits of social capital can carry a moral cost.