Behaving morally requires the ability to act on long-term goals and commitments, and to overcome the lure of short-lived joys. How are we able to do that? New research by Gijs van Houwelingen of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) reveals that focusing on the bigger picture instead of small details can help.
In his dissertation ‘Something to Rely On: The Influence of Stable and Fleeting Drivers on Moral Behavior’, Gijs van Houwelingen argues that cognitive abstraction allows us to concentrate on what we find important in the long run (‘stable drivers’). On the other hand, concrete cognition, enhances the effect of short-lived influences (‘fleeting drivers’).


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Thes findings are especially interesting from a moral point of view, as moral behaviour often requires that people overcome the influence of the fleeting and focus on the stable. Often, but not always, fleeting influences lead people astray from what is morally required. A case in point is where short-term self-interest leads people to exploit an interaction partner, rather than co-operate with them. In other words: whether or not people can think in abstract ways may very well determine whether they are able to act morally in the first place.

This research has two important implications. People that think abstractly are less likely to be corruptible, as corruption is typically facilitated by responding to fleeting cues, such as bribes. Secondly, management styles like transactional leadership (promising bonuses) are more likely to be effective for concrete thinkers since these incentives are typically fleeting drivers.

In other words, organisations that rely on setting incentives to motivate workers are better off hiring people with a concrete thinking style. Positions in which personal integrity is especially important (for instance compliance) people with abstract thinking styles are better off.

ArrayDissertation abstract

In virtually any situation, people encounter short-lived influences that lure us to act in a certain way. The influence of such ‘fleeting drivers’ may or may not be in line our long-term goals and commitments, also referred to as ‘stable drivers’. Moral behaviour in particular often requires the ability to overcome the influence of fleeting drivers such as self-interest, as well as to act on stable ones, such as moral principles. This dissertation explores what determines the relative influence of both types of influence on people’s moral behaviour. Van Houwelingen gives a surprising answer: cognitive abstraction, or ‘construal level’. Abstract cognition (high-construal level) allows us to mentally disengage from the ‘here’ and ‘now’ and therefore quells the influence of fleeting drivers. Concrete cognition (low-construal level), on the other hand, enhances the influence of fleeting drivers. So, high-construal level is associated with behaviour that is driven more strongly by abstract moral principles, such as moral norms. Low-construal level is associated with behaviour that is driven more strongly by situational factors. Van Houwelingen shows this to be true for several different forms of moral behaviour, including co-operation, punishment and trust restoration.

About Gijs van Houwelingen. He obtained bachelor and master degrees (both cum laude) in philosophy (Leiden University and VU University Amsterdam) as well as economics (VU University Amsterdam and University of Amsterdam).

ArrayBron: RSM Discovery

Integriteit en leiderschap zijn belangrijke onderdelen van de Parttime Master Bedrijfskunde, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. Meer informatie over deze deeltijd opleiding treft u hier of op een van de voorlichtingsavonden.

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