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The Contaminating Effect of Social Capital: How Upper-Class Networks Increase Unethical Behavior

Having friends in high places is often considered necessary to achieve success. Indeed, connections with upper-class individuals has been identified as a key component of social capital. Despite the tangible benefits upper-class network contacts can offer, we find that these networks have a dark side: the increased potential for unethical behavior, over and above one’s own social class. We propose that because upper-class individuals are less constrained by social norms, individuals with many upper-class contacts will perceive their network 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 upper-class contacts increases unethical behavior, we conducted five multi-method (archival, field, quasi-experimental, and experimental) studies involving a range of samples (CEOs, nationally representative adults, student roommates) in multiple cultures. 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. Our findings show that the benefits of social capital also carry a moral cost.

Siyu Yu
Rice University
United States

Jiyin Cao
Stony Brook University
United States

Aharon Cohen-Mohliver
London Business School
United Kingdom

Adam Galinsky
Columbia University
United States


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