I think we can all agree that honesty is important, but to what degree? If I witnessed my friend shoplifting, I would without a doubt see them in a different light. I’d view them as immoral, deceitful, and—according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association—less capable. Lead author Jennifer Stellar, PhD, of the University of Toronto explains these findings: “Although arguments can be made that an individual’s moral behavior is, or should be, irrelevant to their overall competence, we found consistent support that immoral behavior reduced judgments of people’s competence.”

To reach these findings, Stellar and her co-author, Robb Willer, PhD, of Stanford University, recruited over 1,500 study participants to participate in a series of six experiments. In these experiments, the researchers showed individuals acting dishonestly in theoretical scenarios (such as shoplifting at the mall), acting selfishly in economic games, cheating on a lab task, or receiving low morality feedback from coworkers.

The participants were then instructed to rate their perception of each individual’s overall competence or ability to complete a given task. For example, in one of the experiments, they were asked how good an individual was at his (or her) job on a scale of 1 to 10—keep in mind that some of these individuals were framed as dishonest who, for instance, stole money from a donation jar, while others were depicted as honest and moral.

In each case, the study participants rated those who appeared dishonest or immoral as less capable of doing their jobs, completing specific tasks, or being generally competent. The researchers were also able to determine that these findings did not represent a “halo effect,” in which the dishonest individuals were simply disliked and perceived as worse in every way, including being less competent.

Stellar was surprised by these results, due to an earlier experiment, which involved asking study subjects if one’s morality was relevant to their competence. “We found that most people rated immoral behavior in one’s private life as irrelevant to determining how good that person was at their job,” she explains. “Essentially, people said they didn’t think they would use moral information in that way, but when they were provided with it, they did.”

Upon further analysis and research, Stellar and her team found that immoral individuals were viewed as less competent because their actions indicated low social intelligence. “Social intelligence is often conceived of as the ability to manage complex social situations. It includes characteristics such as taking the others’ perspectives, being adaptable, managing impressions of oneself and adhering to established social norms. A person who is socially intelligent would understand when and why a coworker is angry and effectively manage their coworker’s potentially destructive emotional response.”

After making this discovery, the team decided to take the concerns about social intelligence out of the equation and tell some study subjects that an individual’s coworkers rated him or her high in social intelligence. This proved to positively affect their perception of the given individual, as the participants no longer reported them to be less competent than the honest individuals. In conclusion, these findings suggest that people view immoral but socially intelligent individuals as cunning and strategic, as opposed to socially incompetent. However, there is a need for further research.

Stellar, J. & Willer, R. (2018, January 31). Unethical and Inept? The Influence of Moral Information on Perception of Competence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Retrieved on February 2, 2018 from http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-pspa0000097.pdf

American Psychological Association. (2018, January 31). Dishonest Individuals Perceived as Less Capable. [Press Release]. Retrieved on February 2, 2018 from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/01/dishonest-individuals.aspx