Cheating spouses have taught scientists a lot about us: from how gonorrhea impacts women and men to how politics and infidelity intertwine. Most recently, the extramarital exploits of police officers, CEOs, white-collar criminals and CFOs have revealed another telling fact about human behavior: our bad decisions tend to follow us from home into the workplace.
In a paper published Wednesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a team of scientists from Texas waded into several different ethical swamps to show that workers who cheat on their spouses also tend to behave badly at work.
In a sample of over 11,000 workers including police officers, CEOs, and financial advisers, they found that those who cheated were twice as likely to engage in “corporate misconduct.” For a police officer, that meant a complaint about behavior that resulted in a reprimand; for a financial advisor, that misconduct might include becoming part of a Ponzi scheme or participating in insider trading.
Lead study author John Griffin, Ph.D., a finance professor at the University of Texas at Austin tells Inverse that his work addresses a “longstanding debate in philosophy and psychology” centered around a simple question: Are our ethics situational? In other words, can we make poor ethical decisions at home, while upholding high ethical standards at work?
It turns out that the people Griffin team analyzed had a hard time upholding their double standards.
“The main result of the paper is that evidence of marital infidelity predicts professional misconduct across multiple professional settings,” Griffin says. “This answers the specific question of whether marital infidelity is informative about professional conduct and suggests that personal and professional lives are connected more generally.”
This association between personal and professional life can be a good thing, too. For example, the authors also note that their findings also suggest that virtues such as honesty and integrity may also influence a person’s actions at home and work. But the unique collection of infidelity data used in this study allowed the team to focus only on the less virtuous side of things.
“Life is Short. Have an Affair.”
Griffin and his co-authors cite a 2007 study suggesting that between 20 and 40 percent of men and 20 to 25 percent of women have extra-martial affairs at some point in their lives. But not all of them get caught, which allows scientists to use their activities to provide insight into human behavior. We know about these affairs because of a major hacking scandal.
In 2015, a group called “The Impact Team” illegally obtained, and later revealed, personal information on 36 million users who had profiles on Ashley Madison, an online dating website for married people that still bears the slogan “Life is Short. Have an Affair.”
Because this study is deeply concerned with ethics, the authors address concerns that using this illegally obtained data might be a questionable choice in itself — though importantly, they’re not the first scientific team to do so. They write:
We have discussed the use of the data with many people, including attorneys, who confirm that the data are permissible to use for research purposes because the data are now in the public domain and available for research use in the same way that they are available to and used by the press.
Here, the team was able to match the profiles of people who regularly used Ashley Madison with professional records, illuminating the stark correlation between infidelity and bad work behavior. For example, the team reported that 1.3 percent of a control group of police officers had paid Ashley Madison transactions. But among officers who engaged in misconduct, twice as many (2.9 percent) had Ashley Madison transactions.
These findings aren’t causal — that is, they don’t serve to show us that cheating on a spouse is causing the misconduct at work or vice versa. But in reference to their findings concerning police officers, the difference between the groups was “highly statistically significant,” and the pattern was replicated across the professions they examined.
Although they can’t explain what drives people to make questionable choices in the first place, these results do help illuminate the consequences of them. Our ethical decisions at home appear to bleed into other aspects of life, even if we don’t expect them to.
We study the connection between personal and professional behavior by introducing usage of a marital infidelity website as a measure of personal conduct. Police officers and financial advisors who use the infidelity website are significantly more likely to engage in professional misconduct. Results are similar for US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) defendants accused of white-collar crimes, and companies with chief executive officers (CEOs) or chief financial officers (CFOs) who use the website are more than twice as likely to engage in corporate misconduct. The relation is not explained by a wide range of regional, firm, executive, and cultural variables. These findings suggest that personal and workplace behavior are closely related.