Most people would rather tell a lie or do a bad deed if asked than face the social discomfort of saying no, according to a new study.

London - Men are more likely than women to cut moral corners when faced with a competitive scenario in which failure could diminish their sense of masculinity, research shows.

A series of studies shows that patterns of male dishonesty can be correlated with socio-cultural contexts in which they are motivated to defend their masculinity.

In an article for Scientific American, Cindi May, Professor of Psychology at the College of Charleston, reviews a body of research which demonstrates that men have lower moral standards than women.

Studies show males are more likely to minimise the consequences of moral misconduct, adopt ethically questionable tactics, and lie bigger and more often.

The pattern, May notes, is most pronounced in areas where success has been viewed as a sign of male vigour and competence, and where loss signifies weakness, impotence or cowardice.

“When men must use strategy or cunning to prove or defend their masculinity, they are willing to compromise moral standards to assert dominance,” she says.

Pointing to a series of recent studies by Laura Kray of the University of California, Berkely and Michael Haselhuhn of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, May argues that the root of the pattern may be socio-cultural.

Kray and Haselhuhn’s work suggests that losing battles – especially in areas that are highly competitive and male oriented – presents a threat to masculinity.

“Apparently manhood is relatively fragile and precarious, and when it is challenged, men tend to become more aggressive and defensive,” May writes.

To test their hypothesis, researchers conducted several experiments comparing not only the kinds of moral decisions men and women made, but also the personal and contextual factors influencing them.

In one, participants were asked to evaluate an ethical scenario in which an elderly couple were selling their family home – with the expectation that the buyer would preserve their house.

The buyer actually intended to demolish the building and build a new structure on the site. Participants had to decide whether the buyer was morally obliged to reveal the conflicting intentions.

Those taking part were also asked to complete another, separate questionnaire assessing how far they saw negotiating as a masculine endeavour.

Kray and Haselhuhn found that men taking part in the experiment were more tolerant of keeping information back from the seller.

This urge to non-disclosure was more prevalent among men who saw effective negotiating as a masculine trait.

Two follow-up studies came to similar conclusions. In one, participants were asked to consider whether it was morally necessary to reveal a buyer’s intentions in a property deal when they were in conflict with those of the seller – with the twist that they were asked to do so from the perspective of either the buyer’s agent or the seller’s.

In another scenario, those taking part were asked to imagine they themselves had lied or that another person had lied, and then asked to evaluate whether the lie was morally acceptable.

Men were less likely to recommend a disclosure of conflicting intentions in the first scenario, and to condemn the lie in the second, indicating again that they set lower ethical standards than women.

Across both studies the ethical evaluations of the men taking part changed depending on their perspective.

In the first case, men in the seller role were more likely to reveal the buyer’s intentions than the men representing the buyer.

In the second, men were far more willing to justify a lie when they were asked to make a judgement about their own actions than those of someone else.

By contrast, women’s ethical judgements remained similar across all perspectives. Even when the ethical choice would stop them from succeeding, they maintained their ethical standards.

Finally, May points to a study by Robert Robinson, from Harvard Business School, Roy Lewicki from Ohio State University, and Eileen Donahue, of Wellesley College, which assessed individuals’ willingness to violate their ethical principles in a range of negotiation scenarios.

It also found that men were more accepting than women of devious tactics like making false promises, misrepresenting information and sabotaging their opponents. This was especially true for men who believed that negotiation prowess was an integral part of their masculine nature.

Sounding a note of caution, May asks readers to consider that all the investigations used competitive negotiation scenarios, where failure is associated with “diminished financial status, threat to professional rank, and – at least to some – weakness”.

In scenarios which challenge traditional ideas of feminine competency and identity, it’s possible that women might become similarly morally vulnerable.

Nonetheless, she adds, “these findings suggest that if ethical standards are a significant factor in your choice of financial advisors or estate agents, it may be safer to go with Bernadette than with Bernie.” – Daily Mail