From glue to gasoline: how competition turns perspective takers unethical

Psychol Sci. 2013 Oct;24(10):1986-94. doi: 10.1177/0956797613482144. Epub 2013 Aug 16.


Perspective taking is often the glue that binds people together. However, we propose that in competitive contexts, perspective taking is akin to adding gasoline to a fire: It inflames already-aroused competitive impulses and leads people to protect themselves from the potentially insidious actions of their competitors. Overall, we suggest that perspective taking functions as a relational amplifier. In cooperative contexts, it creates the foundation for prosocial impulses, but in competitive contexts, it triggers hypercompetition, leading people to prophylactically engage in unethical behavior to prevent themselves from being exploited. The experiments reported here establish that perspective taking interacts with the relational context--cooperative or competitive--to predict unethical behavior, from using insidious negotiation tactics to materially deceiving one's partner to cheating on an anagram task. In the context of competition, perspective taking can pervert the age-old axiom "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" into "do unto others as you think they will try to do unto you."

Keywords: interpersonal interaction; morality; social behavior.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Competitive Behavior
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Metaphor
  • Morals*
  • Random Allocation
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Perception*
  • Theory of Mind*