The Contaminating Effect of social capital: How upper-class networks increased unethical behavior
Dr. Jiyin Cao
Assistant Professor, Management
Stony Brook University
Having friends in high places is often considered necessary to achieve success. Indeed, connections with upper-class individuals have been identified as a key component of social capital. Despite the tangible benefits upper-class network contacts can offer, we find that these networks have a dark side: the increased potential for unethical behavior, over and above one’s own social class. We propose that because upper-class individuals are less constrained by social norms, individuals with many upper-class contacts will perceive their network as having looser social norms. As a result, individuals with upper-class network ties will view morality as more relative and will be more likely to engage in unethical behavior. To test our core hypothesis that having upper-class contacts increases unethical behavior, we conducted five multi-method (archival, field, quasi-experimental, and experimental) studies involving a range of samples (CEOs, nationally representative adults, student roommates) in multiple cultures. Overall, the current research takes a property of networks (its class composition), links it to perceptions of that network (the perceived norm looseness of one’s network contacts) and connects it to a psychological mindset (moral relativism) that ultimately affects unethical behavior. These findings demonstrate that the benefits of social capital also carry a moral cost.