Implicit Assumptions and Organizational Context- A Recipe for Immoral Behavior?

Topic: Ethics
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Automatic ethics: The effects of implicit assumptions and contextual cues on moral behavior.
Authors: Reynolds, S. J., Leavitt, K., & DeCelles, K. A.
Reviewed By: Bobby Bullock

 In recent years, the news has been filled with stories about organizations committing gross violations against the environment, their stakeholders, and even the American public.  So it’s not a stretch to imagine that many people view business itself as inherently immoral.  What are the effects of such implicit assumptions about the moral nature of business?

Reynolds, Leavitt, and Decelles (2010) sought to answer questions like this in a recent study where they examined how employees’ implicit assumptions about the morality of business in general can impact day-to-day business decisions and moral behavior on the job. Their research supported the idea that organizational cues which support individual beliefs about the moral nature of business can combine to create more extreme conclusions (i.e., more immoral behavior or more moral behavior) than would be the case without such organizational cues.

Reynolds’ team found that individuals who inherently believed that business is moral (e.g., intense competition and emphasizing shareholder obligations and financial performance is okay) were much more likely to behave in an immoral fashion when their environment emphasized
success and competition
 On the other hand, individuals who believed that business is inherently immoral (e.g., business practices are overly aggressive and harmful) were much less likely to act immorally when similar cues were presented. However, it is also important to note that when opposite cues such as an emphasis on collaboration were presented in this study, both groups behaved morally!

  • The implications for moral behavior from this study are profound:
  • The organization holds much more influence than previously thought concerning whether or not employees behave morally or immorally
  • Although one can measure an employee’s implicit assumptions regarding their beliefs about the “morality” of business, it is the organizational culture itself that will most likely cue immoral behavior
  • Organizations should be aware of the messages that they send to their employees- if there is an extreme focus on competition and success at all costs, many people will dowhateverit takes to achieve it (hmm… sound familiar?)
  • And, according to Reynolds et al. (2010), organizations might want to take a more proactive approach to influence employee perceptions about the moral obstacles present in the complex world of business so that they may be more aware of this interaction effect


Reynolds, S., Leavitt, K., &
DeCelles, K. (2010). Automatic ethics: The effects of implicit assumptions and
contextual cues on moral behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(4), 752-760.