The acute effects of stress on dishonesty are moderated by individual differences in moral default

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Abstract

In daily life we regularly must decide whether to act dishonestly for personal gain or to be honest and maintain a positive image of ourselves. While evidence suggests that acute stress influences moral decisions, it is unclear whether stress increases or decreases immoral behavior. Here, we hypothesize that stress, through its effects on cognitive control, has different effects on moral decision making for different individuals, depending on their moral default. We test this hypothesis by combining a task which allows for inconspicuously measuring spontaneous cheating with a well-established stress induction task. Our findings confirm our hypothesis, revealing that effects of stress on dishonesty are not uniform, but instead depend on the individual: for those who are relatively dishonest, stress increases dishonesty, whereas for participants who are relatively honest stress makes them more honest. These findings go a long way in resolving the conflicting findings in the literature on the effects of stress on moral decisions, suggesting that stress affects dishonesty differently for different individuals, depending on their moral default.
Original languageEnglish
Article number3984
Number of pages9
JournalScientific Reports
Volume13
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 9 Mar 2023

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© 2023, The Author(s).

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