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Them’s Fightin’ Words: The Effects of Violent Rhetoric on Ethical Decision Making in Business


Business managers regularly employ metaphorical violent rhetoric as a means of motivating their employees to action. While it might be effective to this end, research on violent media suggests that violent rhetoric might have other, less desirable consequences. This study examines how the use of metaphorical violent rhetoric by business managers impacts the ethical decision making of employees. We develop and test a model that explains how the use of violent rhetoric impacts employees’ willingness to break ethical standards, depending on the source of the rhetoric. The results of two experiments suggest that the use of violent rhetoric by a CEO at a competing company increases employees’ willingness to engage in ethical violations while the use of violent rhetoric by employees’ own CEO decreases their willingness to engage in unethical behavior. Furthermore, we find that participants who made less ethical decisions motivated by violent rhetoric used by a competitor’s CEO did not view their decisions as less ethical than the other participants in the experiments. The results of these studies highlight potentially harmful unintended consequences of the use of violent rhetoric, providing knowledge that should be useful to managers and academics who want to increase employee motivation without increasing a willingness to engage in unethical behavior.

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  1. 1.

    For more on types of information processing, see Eagly and Chaiken (1993) and Petty and Cacioppo (1986).

  2. 2.

    It is important to note that the theory predicts there is a reasonable range, so in this example the theory applies to an otherwise “normal” manager who would be unlikely to make up a new accounting rule or otherwise commit more blatant ethical deviations to get the bonus.

  3. 3.

    Johnson et al. (2002) showed that exposure to more television (not violent television, but just television in general) was related with more aggressive behavior 17 years later.

  4. 4.

    This part of Mazar et al.’s (2008) theory coincides with another sizable literature on ethics and self deception (Tenbrunsel and Messick 2004; Shu et al. 2011).

  5. 5.

    AMT is a marketplace where individuals can hire other people to perform tasks online. Both workers and hirers sign up for the service. Hirers then post “hits” (job assignments) for workers to perform. Workers accept the “hit,” perform the work, and then are compensated if their work is deemed of sufficient quality by the hirer. As shown by Berinsky et al. (2012), AMT generally results in high quality responses that are relatively representative of large, random samples of US participants. We note for both studies, all participants gave their informed consent to participate and that the studies were approved by the appropriate Institutional Review Boards before being administered.

  6. 6.

    Although participants were randomly assigned to experimental conditions, there were significant differences in age and years of work experience across some experimental conditions. We therefore include these variables as covariates in all analyses. The results are qualitatively similar to those reported in all instances whether we include or exclude the covariates. Furthermore, these two variables do not interact with our experimental manipulations. We define qualitatively similar to mean the results are in the same statistical direction and of the same level of statistical significance (i.e., significant p < 0.05, marginally significant p < 0.10) as the reported results. Finally, we note that years of work experience is not significant in any of our models. Age is significant and results in participants being less likely to post a rating or a review (p < 0.10).

  7. 7.

    If we include participants who failed the manipulation check the results are qualitatively similar to those reported except in relation to employee’s willingness to issue a negative rating. We define qualitatively similar to mean the results are in the same statistical direction and of the same level of statistical significance (i.e., significant p < 0.05, marginally significant p < 0.10) as the reported results.

  8. 8.

    The question labels were for question 1, “1—Did not have moral/ethical implications” and “7—Did have moral/ethical implications;” for question 2, “1—Not serious” and “7—Very serious;” for question 3, “Very unlikely,” “Unlikely,” “Somewhat unlikely,” “Undecided,” “Somewhat likely,” “likely”, and “Very likely;” for question 4, “1—Very unfair” and “7—Very fair.”

  9. 9.

    We note that we use one-tailed (two-tailed) p-values when a (no) directional prediction is made by a hypothesis.

  10. 10.

    We found no randomization imbalances between conditions (all ps > 0.10)

  11. 11.

    We note that if we include participants who missed the manipulation check questions the results are qualitatively similar to those reported except that the willingness to accept a low credit score is significant at the p = 0.104 level. We define qualitatively similar to mean the results are in the same statistical direction and of the same level of statistical significance (i.e., significant p < 0.05, marginally significant p < 0.10) as the reported results.


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Correspondence to David A. Wood.

Additional information

We are grateful for helpful comments from the anonymous reviewers, Scott Emett, Noah Myers, Jeffrey Pickerd, Jessica Preece, Kyle Shields, and Dan Stephens.

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Gubler, J.R., Kalmoe, N.P. & Wood, D.A. Them’s Fightin’ Words: The Effects of Violent Rhetoric on Ethical Decision Making in Business. J Bus Ethics 130, 705–716 (2015).

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  • Ethics
  • Decision making
  • Violent rhetoric
  • Leadership
  • Metaphors