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The Plurality Effect: People Behave More Unethically Toward Group Than Individual Targets
Research on unethical behavior has tended to focus on the attributes of the actor who engages in organizational misconduct rather than on characteristics of the target. To extend knowledge of when and why unethical behavior (in particular, deception) might occur in organizations, we examine whether target plurality (i.e., whether the target is an individual or a group of individuals) influences deception directed toward the target and whether the target’s group status and the actor’s cultural values moderate this effect; further, we investigate moral concern as a unique explanatory mechanism for these findings. Across three pre-registered experiments and two supplemental studies, we find that individuals engage in more deception when interacting with groups as opposed to individual targets, which we label the plurality effect. Mediation and moderation results reveal that (a) the actor’s moral concern toward the target explains the plurality effect, (b) when the target is outgroup, the plurality effect is stronger among actors with high (versus low) collectivistic values, and (c) moral concern explains the interaction between plurality, group status, and actor’s collectivism. Practically, these findings can help organizational actors guard against an increased likelihood of behaving unethically and help potential victims in organizations avoid the costs associated with deceptive practices targeted at them.