Can exposure to media portrayals of human violence impact an individual’s ethical decision making at work? Ethical business failures can result in enormous financial losses to individuals, businesses, and society. We study how exposure to human violence—especially through media—can cause individuals to make less ethical decisions. We present three experiments, each showing a causal link between exposure to human violence and unethical business behavior, and show this relationship is mediated by an increase in individual hostility levels as a result of exposure to violence. Using observational data, we then provide evidence suggesting that this relationship extends beyond the context of our experiments, showing that companies headquartered in locations marked by greater human violence are more likely to fraudulently misstate their financial statements and exhibit more aggressive financial reporting. Combined, our results suggest that exposure to human violence has significant and real effects on an individual’s ethical decision making.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Our 8-item measure included a list of four “secondary emotions” (2 positive and 2 negative) and four “primary emotions” (2 positive and 2 negative) and asked subjects to rate on a 7-point scale (7 = very much, 1 = not at all) the capacity of people in general to feel each emotion. We created an index of “secondary emotions” by averaging individual responses to the four emotions. Individuals with low scores on this scale are viewed as seeing others as less human.
Although previous research has not explored the effects of exposure to violence on ethics for females (or males), it does indicate that females exhibit revulsion to depictions of violence (Malamuth and Check 1981).
Three different mediation tests using PROCESS by Hayes (2013) are used to test whether dehumanization, perceived arousal, or state aggression mediate the relationship between watching violent videos and lying. Given that results differed by gender, Gender is included as a moderator between violent videos and lying (supplementary tests using gender as a moderator for the relation between violent video and the mediator or the mediator and lying showed that both genders responded relatively similarly to the violent video). The arousing and boring video are collapsed into one condition and compared against the violent video. Panel B reports indirect effect tests (direct tests for males showed significant relations between violent video in all tests, with p value <0.05; thus state aggression is a partial and not full mediator of the relation).
Consider for example a firm that makes sales on account; this increases revenue in the current period with no increase in cash. However, in a future period, cash is collected. This regression model will account for this delay in cash collection. A large residual would occur when cash is not collected, which could result when revenues are fraudulently reported.
Using the absolute value treats negative and positive deviations as poor quality; a firm can deliberately understate or overstate earnings. An alternative is to use the signed residual and interpret overstatements of earnings as more problematic. Our overall inferences are unchanged if we use the signed residual instead of the absolute value. Also, we note that because future cash flow is included in this model, it cannot be used in a predictive fashion; however, we use it to test for the association between a firm’s accruals quality and violence.
Anderson, C. A., Anderson, K. B., & Deuser, W. E. (1996). Examining an affective aggression framework: Weapon and temperature effects on aggressive thoughts, affect, and attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 366–376. doi:10.1177/0146167296224004.
Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: a meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12(5), 353–359. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00366.
Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). The effects of media violence on society. Science, 295, 2377–2378.
Anderson, C. A., Bushman, B. J., & Groom, R. W. (1997). Hot years and serious and deadly assault: Empirical tests of the heat hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(6), 1213–1223.
Anderson, C. A., Deuser, W. E., & DeNeve, K. (1995). Hot temperatures, hostile affect, hostile cognition, and arousal: Tests of a general model of affective aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 434–448.
Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., et al. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 151. doi:10.1037/a0018566.
Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) (2014) Report to the nations on occupational fraud and abuse. Retrieved April 24, 2015 from http://www.acfe.com/rttn/docs/2014-report-to-nations.pdf.
Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3(3), 193–209. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0303_3.
Berinsky, A.-J., Huber, G.-A., & Linz, G.-S. (2012). Evaluating online labor markets for experimental research: Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk. Political Analysis, 20, 351–368. doi:10.1093/pan/mpr057.
Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2002). Violent video games and hostile expectations: A test of the general aggression model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(12), 1679–1686. doi:10.1177/014616702237649.
Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2006). Short-term and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 160(4), 348–352. doi:10.1001/archpedi.160.4.348.
Dechow, P.-M., & Dichev, I. (2002). The quality of accruals and earnings: The role of accrual estimation errors. The Accounting Review, 77(Supplement), 35–59.
Dechow, P.-M., Sloan, R.-G., & Sweeney, A.-P. (1995). Detecting earnings management. The Accounting Review, 70(2), 193–225.
Gabbiadini, A., Riva, P., Andrighetto, L., Volpato, C., & Bushman, B.-J. (2014). Moral disengagement moderates the effect of violent video games on self-control, cheating and aggression. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 451–458.
Gallaway, M. S., Fink, D. S., Millikan, A. M., & Bell, M. R. (2012). Factors associated with physical aggression among US Army soldiers. Aggressive behavior, 38(5), 357–367. doi:10.1002/ab.21436.
Goodman, J.-K., Cryder, C.-E., & Cheema, A. (2013). Data collection in a flat world: The strengths and weaknesses of Mechanical Turk samples. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 26, 213–224. doi:10.1002/bdm.1753.
Greitemeyer, T., & McLatchie, N. (2011). Denying humanness to others a newly discovered mechanism by which violent video games increase aggressive behavior. Psychological Science,. doi:10.1177/0956797611403320.
Greitemeyer, T., & Mügge, D. O. (2014). Video games do affect social outcomes a meta-analytic review of the effects of violent and prosocial video game play. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,. doi:10.1177/0146167213520459.
Gubler, J. R., Kalmoe, N. P., Wood, D. A. (2015). Them’s fightin’ words: The effects of violent rhetoric on ethical decision making in business. Journal of Business Ethics, 130(3), 705–716. doi:10.1007/s10551-014-2256-y.
Gunn, L.-B. (2005). Working well with others: The evolution of teamwork and ethics. Public Choice, 123(1–2), 115–131. doi:10.1007/s11127-005-7523-0.
Hayes, A. F. (2013). Introduction to mediation, moderation, and conditional process analysis: A regression-based approach. New York: Guilford Press.
Huesmann, L. R., et al. (2010). Nailing the coffin shut on doubts that violent video games stimulate aggression: comment on Anderson et al. (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 179–181.
Karpoff, J.-M., Lee, D.-S., & Martin, G.-S. (2008a). The consequences to managers for financial misrepresentation. Journal of Financial Economics, 88(2), 193–215.
Karpoff, J.-M., Lee, D.-S., & Martin, G.-S. (2008b). The cost to firms of cooking the books. Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis, 43(3), 581–612. doi:10.1017/S0022109000004221.
Kish-Gephart, J.-J., Harrison, D.-A., & Treviño, L.-K. (2010). Bad apples, bad cases, and bad barrels: Meta-analytic evidence about sources of unethical decisions at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(1), 1–31. doi:10.1037/a0017103.
Leyens, J.-P., Cortes, B., Demoulin, S., Dovidio, J.-F., Fiske, S.-T., Gaunt, R., et al. (2003). Emotional prejudice, essentialism, and nationalism The 2002 Tajfel Lecture. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33(6), 703–717. doi:10.1002/ejsp.170.
Leyens, J. P., Rodriguez Perez, A., Rodriguez Torres, R., Gaunt, R., Paladino, M. P., Vaes, J., & Demoulin, S. (2001). Psychological essentialism and the differential attribution of uniquely human emotions to ingroups and outgroups. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31(4), 395–411. doi:10.1002/ejsp.50.
Malamuth, N.-M., & Check, J.-V.-P. (1981). The effects of mass media exposure on acceptance of violence against women: a field experiment. Journal of Research in Personality, 15, 436–446.
Maria-Paola, P., Leyens, J.-P., Rodriguez, R., Rodriguez, A., Gaunt, R., & Demoulin, S. (2002). Differential association of uniquely and non uniquely human emotions with the ingroup and the outgroup. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 5(2), 105–117. doi:10.1177/1368430202005002539.
Martin, K.-D., & Cullen, J.-B. (2006). Continuities and extensions of ethical climate theory: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Business Ethics, 69(2), 175–194. doi:10.1007/s10551-006-9084-7.
McGuire, S. T., Omer, T. C., & Sharp, N. Y. (2011). The impact of religion on financial reporting irregularities. The Accounting Review, 87(2), 645–673. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1548154.
Mitnick, B. M. (1992). The theory of agency and organizational analysis. In N. Bowie & R. E. Freeman (Eds.), Ethics and agency theory (pp. 75–96). New York: Oxford University Press.
Paolacci, G., & Chandler, J. (2014). Inside the Turk understanding Mechanical Turk as a participant pool. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(3), 184–188. doi:10.1177/0963721414531598.
Price, R.-A, I. I. I., Sharp, N.-Y., & Wood, D.-A. (2011). Detecting and predicting accounting irregularities: A comparison of commercial and academic risk measures. Accounting Horizons, 25(4), 755–780. doi:10.2308/acch-50064.
Rawwas, M.-Y.-A., Vitell, S.-J., & Al-Khatib, J.-A. (1994). Consumer ethics: The possible effects of terrorism and war on the ethical values of consumers’. Journal of Business Ethics, 13, 223–231. doi:10.1007/BF02074821.
Suri, S., Goldstein, D.-G., Mason, W.-A. (2011). Honesty in an online labor market. AAAI workshops, North America. Retrieved Nov 5, 2014 from https://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/WS/AAAIW11/paper/view/3955.
About this article
Cite this article
Gubler, J.R., Herrick, S., Price, R.A. et al. Violence, Aggression, and Ethics: The Link Between Exposure to Human Violence and Unethical Behavior. J Bus Ethics 147, 25–34 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2926-4