Individuals’ willingness to act in socially desirable ways, such as sharing resources with others and abiding by norms of ethical conduct, is a necessary condition of social life. Recent research suggests that people are driven by self-serving impulses and have to rely on cognitive control overriding such impulses to act in socially desirable ways. An alternative perspective based on evolutionary and moral psychology emphasizes the role of primitive other-regarding impulses and suggests cognitive control is not necessary to motivate socially desirable behaviours.
My co-authors (Marko Pitesa and Stefan Thau) and I provided a theoretical integration of these seemingly diverging perspectives by identifying a key situational variable—salience of interpersonal impact—that determines whether people’s automatic impulse is to behave in a self-serving or socially desirable manner. I present the results of four experiments that investigate this issue and will discuss the implications for managing ethical behaviour in organizations.