Polluted air may pollute our morality

February 7, 2018, Association for Psychological Science
Participants assigned to the "polluted" condition saw a collage of photos showing polluted scenes taken in Beijing, China. They saw this collage as they wrote a diary entry describing what it would be like to live in the location depicted. Credit: ©Jackson G. Lu, Julia J. Lee, Francesca Gino, and Adam D. Galinsky

Exposure to air pollution, even imagining exposure to air pollution, may lead to unethical behavior, according to findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. A combination of archival and experimental studies indicates that exposure to air pollution, either physically or mentally, is linked with unethical behavior such as crime and cheating. The experimental findings suggest that this association may be due, at least in part, to increased anxiety.

"This research reveals that may have potential ethical costs that go beyond its well-known toll on health and the environment," says behavioral scientist Jackson G. Lu of Columbia Business School, the first author of the research. "This is important because air is a serious global issue that affects billions of people—even in the United States, about 142 million people still reside in counties with dangerously polluted air."

Previous studies have indicated that exposure to air pollution elevates individuals' feelings of . Anxiety is known to correlate with a range of unethical behaviors. Lu and colleagues hypothesized that pollution may ultimately increase criminal activity and by increasing anxiety.

In one study, the researchers examined air pollution and for 9,360 US cities collected over a 9-year period. The , maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency, included information about six major pollutants, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. The crime data, maintained by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, included information about offenses in seven major categories, including murder, aggravated assault, and robbery.

The researchers found that cities with higher levels of air pollution also tended to have higher levels of crime. This association held even after the researchers accounted for other potential factors, including total population, number of law enforcement employees, median age, gender distribution, race distribution, poverty rate, unemployment rate, unobserved heterogeneity among cities (e.g., city area, legal system), and unobserved time-varying effects (e.g., macroeconomic conditions).

To establish a direct, causal link between the experience of air pollution and unethical behavior, the researchers also conducted a series of experiments. Because they could not randomly assign to physically experience different levels of air pollution, the researchers manipulated whether participants imagined experiencing air pollution.

In one experiment, 256 participants saw a photo featuring either a polluted scene or a clean scene. They imagined living in that location and reflected on how they would feel as they walked around and breathed the air.

On a supposedly unrelated task, they saw a set of cue words (e.g., sore, shoulder, sweat) and had to identify another word that was linked with each of the cue words (e.g., cold); each correct answer earned them $0.50. Due to a supposed computer glitch, the correct answer popped up if the participants hovered their mouse over the answer box, which the researchers asked them not to do. Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers recorded how many times the participants peeked at the answer.

Participants assigned to the "nonpolluted" condition saw a collage of photos showing nonpolluted scenes taken in Beijing, China. They saw this collage as they wrote a diary entry describing what it would be like to live in the location depicted. Credit: ©Jackson G. Lu, Julia J. Lee, Francesca Gino, and Adam D. Galinsky

The results showed that participants who thought about living in a polluted area cheated more often than did those who thought about living in a clean area.

In two additional experiments, participants saw photos of either polluted or clean scenes taken in the exact same locations in Beijing, and they wrote about what it would be like to live there. Independent coders rated the essays according to how much anxiety the participants expressed.

In one of the experiments conducted with university students in the US, the researchers measured how often participants cheated in reporting the outcome of a die roll; in the other experiment with adults in India, they measured participants' willingness to use unethical negotiation strategies.

Again, participants who wrote about living in a polluted location engaged in more unethical behavior than did those who wrote about living in a clean location; they also expressed more anxiety in their writing. As the researchers hypothesized, anxiety level mediated the link between imagining exposure to air pollution and unethical behavior.

Together, the archival and experimental findings suggest that exposure to air pollution, whether physical or mental, is linked with transgressive behavior through increased levels of anxiety.

Lu and colleagues note that there may be other mechanisms besides anxiety that link air pollution and unethical behavior. They also acknowledge that imagining experiencing air pollution is not equivalent to experiencing actual air pollution. They highlight these limitations as avenues for further research.

Ultimately, the research reveals another pathway through which a person's surroundings can affect his or her behavior:

"Our findings suggest that air pollution not only corrupts people's health, but also can contaminate their morality," Lu concludes.

Explore further: Air pollution linked to irregular menstrual cycles

More information: Jackson G. Lu et al, Polluted Morality: Air Pollution Predicts Criminal Activity and Unethical Behavior, Psychological Science (2018). DOI: 10.1177/0956797617735807

Related Stories

Air pollution linked to irregular menstrual cycles

January 25, 2018
The air your teenage daughter breathes may be causing irregular menstrual cycles. Well documented negative health effects from air pollution exposure include infertility, metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovary syndrome. ...

Walking might not be good for you if it's through polluted city streets

December 22, 2017
We don't see air pollution, unless its concentration is high, and so we don't realise it's there and that we breathe it in. We don't think of the devices we use every day and many times a day: cars, as air pollution sources.

Air pollution associated with cancer mortality beyond lung cancer

November 1, 2017
Air pollution is classified as carcinogenic to humans given its association with lung cancer, but there is little evidence for its association with cancer at other body sites. In a new large-scale prospective study led by ...

Higher ozone, lower humidity levels associated with dry eye disease

March 10, 2016
In a study published online by JAMA Ophthalmology, Dong Hyun Kim, M.D., of Gachon University Gil Medical Center, Incheon, Korea and colleagues examined the associations between outdoor air pollution and dry eye disease in ...

'Bad' air may impact 'good' cholesterol increasing heart disease risk

April 13, 2017
Traffic-related air pollution may increase cardiovascular disease risk by lowering levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), commonly known as "good" cholesterol, according to new research in the American Heart Association's ...

Air pollution linked to increased risk of anxiety and stroke

March 24, 2015
Air pollution is linked to a higher risk of stroke, particularly in developing countries, finds a study published in The BMJ today. In a second article, new research also shows that air pollution is associated with anxiety.

Recommended for you

Researchers replicate famous marshmallow test, makes new observations

May 25, 2018
A new replication study of the well-known "marshmallow test—a famous psychological experiment designed to measure children's self-control—suggests that being able to delay gratification at a young age may not be as predictive ...

Can we really tell if it's love at first sight?

May 25, 2018
Long-term and short-term relationships are obviously different from each other. Some people are the type you'd want to marry; others are good primarily for the sex.

People with family history of alcoholism release more dopamine in expectation of alcohol

May 23, 2018
People with a family history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) release more dopamine in the brain's main reward center in response to the expectation of alcohol than people diagnosed with the disorder, or healthy people without ...

Why we fail to understand our smartphone use

May 23, 2018
Checking your phone dozens of times a day indicates unconscious behaviour, which is "extremely repetitive" say psychologists.

Study confirms that men and women tend to adopt different navigation strategies

May 23, 2018
When navigating in a known environment, men prefer to take shortcuts to reach their destination more quickly, while women tend to use routes they know. This is according to Alexander Boone of UC Santa Barbara in the US who ...

Early life trauma in men associated with reduced levels of sperm microRNAs

May 22, 2018
Exposure to early life trauma can lead to poor physical and mental health in some individuals, which can be passed on to their children. Studies in mice show that at least some of the effects of stress can be transmitted ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.