The Dark Side of Comparisons: Unethical Behavior

Comparisons have a dark side. They can lead individuals and organizations to engage in unethical behavior in their pursuit of success. Comparisons that foster rivalries, create unrealistic benchmarks, or generate negative social dynamics can all contribute to a culture of cheating and misconduct. It is crucial to recognize and address these negative consequences when considering the influence of comparisons.

Josh Ether

5/3/20192 min read

While comparisons can be a source of motivation, they can also lead to destructive and unethical behavior. The rivalry between figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding provides a stark example. Both athletes were competing for spots on the US Olympic Team, and they trained diligently. However, a horrific incident occurred when a man hired by Tonya Harding attacked Nancy Kerrigan, injuring her knee and hindering her ability to practice. In this case, the competition went beyond hard work and turned into a ruthless attempt to undermine a fellow competitor. Comparisons can motivate individuals to engage in unethical behavior, as seen in this extreme case.

Another rivalry between Virgin and British Airways illustrates how comparisons can lead to questionable actions. British Airways invested in projects like the London Eye, while Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, taunted British Airways with a blimp carrying the message "BA can't get it up." This rivalry escalated beyond mere trash talk, with British Airways resorting to hacking into Virgin's system and engaging in unethical practices to steal customers. Their actions eventually resulted in significant trouble. This example demonstrates how comparisons can drive companies to engage in unethical behavior in their quest to outdo their rivals.

The influence of comparisons on unethical behavior extends to professional soccer rivalries as well. Research conducted by Adam Gilinsky and others analyzed matches between soccer teams from different cities and found that matches between co-located teams, where both teams have home stadiums, were more intense. These intense rivalries were associated with more yellow and red cards, indicating higher levels of unethical behavior on the field.

Comparisons can also impact the academic world. Academics often upload their articles onto the web, and the number of downloads these articles receive serves as a measure of importance. Peers often consider download counts when deciding which articles to read and pay attention to. However, this measure can be manipulated. Some academics resort to downloading their own articles or even developing programs to boost their download counts. Comparisons with peers who have high download counts, as well as reference points like aiming for the top 10, can tempt individuals to engage in such unethical behavior.

Furthermore, comparisons within a workplace can lead to negative consequences. Consider the case of Rhonda, who was selected by a manager to receive additional training and was being groomed for promotion. While this is a positive step by the company, Rhonda's coworkers began engaging in unfavorable comparisons. They ostracized her by not inviting her to events and withholding important information. As a result, Rhonda's work suffered, and it became harder for her to succeed. Feeling like the employee of the month that no one wants to interact with, Rhonda may become demotivated and invest less effort to avoid being perceived as the "teacher's pet." In this way, comparisons within the workplace can undermine desired behaviors and contribute to decreased productivity.