Several experimental studies have shown that social image concerns play an important role when people make decisions that may be perceived by others as immoral. A new study by Armin Falk, now published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, shows that individuals not only care about social image, but also about a positive image vis-à-vis themselves.
To study the causal impact of self-image concerns on moral behavior, Falk exposed subjects to a morally-relevant decision context while randomly varying self-image concerns. Participants in the experiment had the option to earn money by inflicting a painful, yet harmless, electric shock on another participant. A randomly selected group of participants saw their own face on the decision screen in a real-time video feed. To ensure that the behavioral effect can be attributed to self-image rather than the video as such, another group saw themselves in a mirror. Two control groups saw either no video at all or a neutral video.
As the figure shows, those who were confronted with their own image on the screen or in the mirror were significantly less likely to inflict pain on others in return for money. In other words, an exogenous increase in the salience of self-image reduces immoral behavior.
In terms of practical implications, Falk suggests that firms, organizations or tax authorities seeking to promote socially responsible behaviors may want to create environments that draw individuals’ attention to themselves when taking decisions.