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The Good In Evil: Decision-Makers Overestimate The Reputational Costs of Necessary Evils

Decision-makers must often choose whether to commit necessary evils (i.e., cause harm in order to produce a benefit), such as allocating punishments or redistributing resources. Across five studies, we find that decision-makers overestimate the reputational consequences of performing everyday necessary evils. We document that targets of necessary evils more favorably evaluate decision-makers than they expect using real recalled events (Study 1) and replicate our effect in two incentive compatible games involving real punishment decisions and real redistribution of money (Studies 2-3). Moreover, we find that decision-makers focus narrowly on the harm caused by necessary evils rather than attending to the instrumental value necessary evils create, which explains why targets judge decision-makers who commit necessarily evils more positively than they expect (Studies 4-5). This research sheds light on the social causes and consequences of everyday necessary evils and highlights how harm aversion can bias decision-makers’ social expectations and resulting decisions.

Michael White
Columbia Business School
United States

Stacia King
Stanford University
United States

Emma Levine
University of Chicago Booth School of Business
United States


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