Ethical Decision-Making Under Social Uncertainty

An Introduction of Überethicality
  • Julia M. PuaschunderEmail author
Living reference work entry


Prospect theory holds human to code gains or losses perspectives relative to an individual reference point to guide our actions. Monetary losses loom larger in human than the joy over gains – but does this hold for social status changes? Testing prospect theory for social status striving in the realm of socioeconomics helps understand the underlying mechanisms of social identity and social dominance theories. In two field experiments, social status prospects relative to an individual’s reference point were found to influence social decision-making and action. Social status depletion was outlined in order to avoid repetition to drive social responsibility in the sustainability domain. Two field observations of environmentally conscientious recycling behavior and sustainable energy consumption at a North American university campus capture social status losses resulting in higher ethicality than social status gains. Ethicality as a socially appreciated, noble contribution to society may offer the prospect of social status gains resuscitation opportunities given the societal respect for altruism and pro-social acts. Social responsibility grants social status elevation opportunities. An Überethical filling of legal gaps or outperforming of regulatory obligations thereby is likely to occur after social status drops. Social status losses are identified as significant drivers of socially responsible environmental conscientiousness. Social forces thereby promise to become an effective means for accomplishing positive societal change.


Elite education Energy consumption Ethicality Libraries Recycling Prospect theory Social identity Social norms Social status Sustainability 


Decision-making research has been revolutionized by prospect theory. In laboratory experiments, prospect theory captures human to code outcome perspectives as gains or losses relative to an individual reference point, by which decisions are anchored. Prospect theory’s core finding that monetary losses loom larger than gains has been generalized in many domains, yet not been tested for social status changes. Social status striving has been subject to social sciences’ research for a long time, but until today, we have no clear picture of how social status prospects relative to an individual reference point may influence our decision-making and action. Understanding human cognition in the light of social status perspectives, however, could allow turning social status experiences into ethicality nudges. The perceived endowment through social status may drive social responsibility (Marques forthcoming; Puaschunder 2010; Ramananan forthcoming). Ethicality as a socially appreciated, noble societal contribution offers the prospect of social status gains given the societal respect for altruism and pro-social acts. An Überethical filling of current legal gaps or outperforming legal regulations grants additional social status elevation opportunities.

The following chapter provides an innovation application of social status theories in the sustainability domain. Building on prospect theory, two field observations of environmentally conscientious recycling behavior and sustainable energy consumption investigated if social status losses are more likely to be answered with ethicality than social status gains. Social status losses are found as significant drivers of socially responsible environmental conscientiousness. Testing prospect theory for social status striving advances socioeconomics and helps understanding the underlying mechanisms of social identity theories. Pegging social status to ethicality is an unprecedented approach to use social forces as a means for accomplishing positive societal change. Future studies may target at elucidating if ethicality in the wake of social status losses is more a cognitive, rational strategy or emotional compensation for feelings of unworthiness after social status drops.

Theoretical Framework

Social status is as old as human beings. Already ancient sources attribute rights and allocate assets based on status (DiTella et al. 2001). Status ranks individuals on socially valued individual characteristics and group membership (Ball and Eckel 1996; Hong and Bohnet 2004; Loch et al. 2000; Ridgeway and Walker 1995). At the same time, surprisingly scarce is the information on how individuals perceive status changes and how their social conscientiousness is related to social endowments. In general, social status upward prospects are seen as favorable – but the downside of social status losses is rather vaguely described, and no stringent framework exists on how status prospects impact human decision-making and actions.

One of the most influential theories explaining human decision-making under uncertainty is prospect theory (Kahneman and Tversky 1979). Prospect theory holds individuals’ perceptions about prospective outcomes as individually evaluated changes from the status quo. Laboratory experiments find individual aggravation over losing monetary resources to be greater than the pleasure associated with gaining the same amount (Bazerman and Moore 2008). Originally prospect theory was captured for monetary gains and losses but replicated in various fields (Levy 1997). In the application of prospect theory, social comparisons have mildly been touched on – if we consider the impact social identities have on our day-to-day judgment, decision-making, and actions (Loewenstein et al. 1989). Understanding social status prospects’ influence on individual behavior, however, could explain the underlying sociopsychological motives of decision-making in the social compound. More concretely, if certain social status prospects are found to be perceived as more or less favorable, they are prone to elicit certain behavior and may steer respective action. In individuals’ constant striving for favorable social status enhancement, social status prospects could put people into a specific mindset that drives pro-social acts.

As a pro-social behavior, ethicality is socially honored. In the social compound, ethicality offers social status elevation prospects derived from respect for socially valued altruism. Ethicality as a noble act may thus grant social status elevating opportunities. In reverse, social status perspectives could be used to nudge people into pro-social behavior (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). The theory of nudging was introduced by Thaler and Sunstein (2008) drawing from psychology and behavioral economics to defend libertarian paternalism and create a favorable choice architecture that helps people to intuitively fall for a more health choice. Classical examples of how decisions can be influenced are anchoring, availability, representativeness, status quo, and herd behavior to create environments that aid people in making a choice that is beneficial on the long run and for the sake of common good. Applications of successful nudging range from food choice and health, over finance and retirement, to work discipline but also environmentalism.

In accordance with prospect theory holding that status losses loom larger than status gains and nudging theory, providing innovative examples of how individual decision-making can be influenced subliminally by group memberships, foremost social status losses may steer ethicality in the wish to regain social status based on a reference point relative to previously held status positions. If ethicality is related to social status gain perspectives, social status awareness could become a means to nurture a favorable climate within society. Social status endowments may thus be the core of socially responsible behavior; social status prospects the driver of the warm glow. In the light of ethicality being an implicit social status enhancement tool, social status losses are potentially answered by pro-social behavior. Social status manipulation could thereby serve as a nonmonetary nudge to foster ethicality in society (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). Prospect theory and nudging are proposed as means of social status enhancement with attention to regaining prior social status losses. Social status losses are portrayed to nudge people into pro-social action.

All cultures feature some form of social status displayed in commonly shared symbols. Social status attributions posit people in relation to each other in society (Huberman et al. 2004). As ascribed status can be improved throughout life, relative status positions are assigned in zero-sum games – thus one individual’s status gain lowers another ones’ status. Individuals implicitly weigh their social status based on the number of contestants in ranks above and below them (DiTella et al. 2001). In societal hierarchies, status is related to a diverse set of opportunities as different rules and availability of resources apply to variant social status positions (Young 2011).

As an intrinsic fundamental human characteristic, people are concerned about their social status in relevant domains, leveraging social status striving into a pivotal motivation factor in human life (e.g., Coleman 1990; Duesenberry 1949; Friedman 1953; Friedman and Savage 1948; Mazur and Lamb 1980; Ridgeway and Walker 1995; Weber 1978). Social status impacts on an individual’s social identity and emotional state (Postlewaite 1998). Status gains and superiority are associated with positive emotions and well-being derived from positive interaction (Bird 2004; Galiani and Weinschelbaum 2007; Hong and Bohnet 2004). Individuals are psychologically satisfied when experiencing to be better off than others and feel uneasy when they see others doing better (Easterlin 1974; Hopkins and Kornienko 2004). Status losses are embarrassing and drive a desire to enhance one’s self-image in the wake of experienced unhappiness and risk aversion (DiTella et al. 2001; Harbaugh 2006).

In the social compound, we favor positive status superiority of our groups compared to groups we do not belong to Tajfel (1978) and Tajfel and Turner (1986). Favorable group membership experiences are based on social opportunities (Meeker and Weitzel-O’Neill 1977; Ridgeway et al. 1985). Group members with high status have more control (Bales 1951; Berger and Zelditch 1985), receive more credit for success (Fan and Gruenfeld 1998), and enjoy higher degrees of well-being (Adler et al. 2000). In contrast, low-status group members are more likely to be neglected (Chance 1967; Savin-Williams 1979), more often blamed for failures (Weisband et al. 1995), and feel more negatively (Mazur 1973; Tiedens 2000).

Social status is directly related to social action and therefore provokes human behavior (Weber 1946/2009). Social status may bestow agents with subjective meaningfulness. The individual may perceive himself or herself as part of the larger and may therefore plan actions to be socially favorable. Actions may also arise naturally and subconsciously (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). The group has an anchoring guiding influence on the individual, which is described in very many domains ranging from sociology to history, politics, jurisprudence, ethics, and arts (Weber 1946/2009).

The emotional, social, and economic consequences of status striving and related decision-making appear as an open research question. Unsolved remains how social status pursuits drive motivation and behavior. No stringent decision-making pattern of social status prospects impacting on decision-making and human action can be given in the eye of social uncertainty. If social status endowments lead to more social conscientiousness or social status losses may loom larger than social endowment gains is an unsolved question. One of the most influential theories to predict human decision-making in the light of future uncertainty is prospect theory.

Prospect theory revolutionized decision-making sciences by capturing economic outcomes to be coded as gains or losses relative to a neutral reference point (Kahneman and Tversky 1979; Schkade and Kahneman 1998). In laboratory experiments, Kahneman and Tversky (1979) found individuals’ perceptions about outcomes as evaluative changes from their current state. Based on deviations from the status quo, prospect theory depicts an S-shaped expected utility function for perceived monetary gains and losses with a convex value curve for gains and a concave value function for losses (Currim and Sarin 1989; Thaler 1999). A comparatively steeper loss than value function captures peoples’ aggravation over losing money to be greater than their pleasure associated with acquiring the same amount of money (Kahneman and Tversky 1979). Individuals taking losses more serious than gains are motivated to preserve their status quo (Bazerman and Moore 2008). The status quo bias holds individuals to be risk averse in the domain of gains, while they are risk seeking when facing loss prospects (Jervis 1992; Kahneman et al. 1991; Kahneman and Tversky 2000; McDermott et al. 2008).

Overall, prospect theory has leveraged into one of the most influential social sciences paradigms (Kahneman and Tversky 1992). In manifold application of prospect theory, hardly any information exists on social status changes. Although social comparisons may directly affect decision-making under social uncertainty, decision-making in the eye of social status endowment prospect remains an underexplored scientific area. Until today, we have no information on the generalizability of monetary prospects on social status outcome perspectives and how decision-making is influenced by social status outlooks and endowments (Huberman et al. 2004).

While the idea that people care about their relative status is well acknowledged in social sciences, the behavioral consequences of social status prospects are rather unknown (Güth and Tietz 1990; Nowak and Sigmund 1998; Robson 1992; Tooby and Cosmides 1990; Wedekind 1998). The applicability of prospect theory on social status perspectives is untested (Loewenstein et al. 1989). Already in the original presentation of prospect theory, Kahneman and Tversky (1979) envisioned applications onto more “typical” situations of choice. Apart from prospective monetary outcomes, prospect theory was proposed to be investigated for probabilities, in which outcomes are not explicitly given and more likely to be based on skills and chances (Kahneman and Tversky 1979). Especially the status quo bias being theoretically isolated from motivational and social factors raised questions about social references, future aspirations, and recent gains and losses (Chernev 2009; Levy 1997, 2003; McDermott et al. 2008; Tversky and Kahneman 1991).

First comparisons of monetary and social utility in relation to prospect theory were started by Loewenstein et al. (1989). Social utility was defined as the level of satisfaction derived from outcomes of the self in comparison to others that were depicted as alternative or additional salient reference points. Regarding social comparisons and framing, Fox and Dayan (2004) found deviations from the original prospect theory in gain preferences over loss aversion.

Building on preliminary research that holds social status striving leading to investors’ risk aversion (Roussanov 2009) and happiness being dependent on relative comparison results, Falkenstein (2006) argues that people become more risk seeking when facing negative social comparison outcomes (Axelrod 1984; Easterlin 1974; Siegel 2002). One application of prospect theory in social contexts showed that accommodations to losses tend to be slower than to gains and people incur excessive risks to recover from social status drops (Jervis 1992; Levy 1997). The view of social status striving as driver of risk-seeking behavior is also supported by descriptive research on wealth distribution and entrepreneurship (Cole et al. 1992). Naturally following experimental extensions of prospect theory could integrate the role of social comparisons for judgment and decision-making – as outlined by Festingers’ (1954) social comparison and Adams’ (1965) equity theory.

As most of our decision-making takes place in social and hierarchical contexts, applying prospect theory for social reference dependence appears as an interesting and necessary extension. In an attempt to explain the underlying sociopsychological motives of human decision-making under social uncertainty, investigating prospect theory in the social status domain will help understanding the behavioral consequences of social status prospects. In addition, becoming knowledgeable about emotions and behavior consequences related to prospective status changes could help unraveling the bounds of collective decision-making and overcome harmful collective decision-making outcomes – such as risk shifts, social stratification, and group polarization (Janis 1982). Finding how social status perspectives drive our actions and steer emotions will also enable us to create certain social status experiences that may instigate pro-social behavior. In particular, social status prospects could be used to drive ethicality.

Social status comprises of individual characteristics but also the amalgamated social status ascribed to groups one belongs to. Social identity captures that the mere belonging to a group contributes to an individual’s status and self-esteem derived from the assigned respect toward membership groups (Tajfel and Turner 1979). As social identities are related to a certain social status, exposure to social identity cues creates situations of heightened social status awareness that influence the self-esteem. Social identity experiences put people in a specific mindset that affects their self-worth and determines their decision-making and actions.

In an implicit social hierarchy of social groups, individuals are in a constant struggle for status by orienting themselves onto higher social status groups they aspire to enter (Sidanius and Pratto 1999). Social group membership cues of groups with higher social status steer the wish to belonging to a group (Puaschunder 2015). The longing to gain access to higher social status groups and striving for their respect could enhance compliance on collectively shared goals.

Social status provides opportunities to distinguish among each other (Bourdieu 1979/1984). Social status prospects translated to economic means motivate people’s actions. Cultural capital, such as elite education, may promote social mobility opportunities that satisfy a zest for social mobility improvement (Bourdieu 1979/1984; Ulluwishewa forthcoming). Different social classes may be established through education that constitutes and cultivates a certain taste within society. A certain habitus learned in educational institutions may be a foundation of different types of social classes (Bourdieu 1979/1984). Education may build a certain habitus that may then distinguish among social classes. A certain predisposition toward solving social situations may be acquired through education, which eventually leads toward class-based social groups handling social situations differently (Gil-Doménech and Berbegal-Mirabent forthcoming). Social choice preferences learned in educational institutions may be the foundation of social class differences. Predispositions to certain kinds of tastes – including the preference for ethicality – may be instilled in children through education, which creates a certain taste for social conscientiousness (Bourdieu 1979/1984). The beauty of Ivy League education may be to enter a certain social class and impede social upward mobility but also entail the positive externality to acquire social responsibility and taste for ethicality (Puaschunder 2016).

Research Questions

In these features, social identity experiences could be used to change peoples’ actions according to social norms. In an implicit social contract, social norms trigger solidarity on common goals and cultivate virtues within society – foremost through emotional experiences. Groups bestow with self-worth elevating pride when members are complying with socially favorable goals and shame arises when individuals act socially irresponsible. Fear of social status losses breaks unfavorable antisocial habits. Through emotions, exposure to social identity and social norm cues may drive social responsibility. Emotions depending on social experiences could be used to drive pro-social action. Social forces could steer social norm compliance based on emotional experiences in the light of social status prospects. Pegging social identity to social norm cues may create a specific mindset that influences the judgment and decision-making of individuals who may then act in a socially favorable way. Through cognition and emotions, social status prospects and social norm cues may trigger social norm compliance contributing to ethicality.

Ethics capture social responsibility based on explicit and implicit social norms. Ethicality not only comprises people choosing to not do wrong or when people unconscientiously enter a slippery slope leading to unethicality (Bazerman and Chugh 2005; Bazerman and Tenbrunsel 2011; Tenbrunsel and Messick 2004). Ethicality also depicts when humans are outperforming legal requirements and policy recommendations in the search for doing more “good” than required. In this natural human drive to do “good” to others, humans are overdoing legal regulation while incurring costs and impose risks onto themselves. Similar to Zimbardo’s heroic imagination (2011a, b) describing the voluntary service to others that involves a risk to physical comfort, social stature, or quality of life, this kind of Überethicality captures the voluntarily filling of legal gaps or outperforming of public policy goals that impose costs and risks onto the individual. In closing current legal gaps, the evolutionary-based natural law of Überethicality is forerunning legal codifications if considering laws to be the expression of our shared nature and amalgamated sum of societal norms over time (Cicero in Keyes 1966).

Ethicality offers potential implicit or explicit strategies to express and enhance social status in the social compound. In general, the natural behavioral drive of Überethicality ignites without material gain prospect. To draw an extreme example, Mother Theresa was monetarily unfortunate yet obtained highest social status for her Überethical pro-social work. In addition, financial investors who gained a fortune by rational market calculus are often prone to feel they have to return to society by philanthropy – for instance, Warren Buffett and George Soros dedicate extraordinary amounts of time and money to promote ethical causes.

Apart from monetary considerations, Überethicality derives from social incentives in the social compound. Status may play a key role. Based on Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs, one can only be Überethical if having reached a certain social status. Not having to worry about food and shelter frees mental capacities to address higher societal, ethical needs and future-oriented filling current legal gaps. As ethicality is perceived as noble act that grants others’ respect, individuals may use ethical decisions as a conspicuous social status symbol in the social compound. Beyond governmental regulation and legal obligations, the nobleness of Überethicality may bestow individuals with social status elevation prospects. The foresightedness of fulfilling future requirements also implies leadership advantages (Young 2011). Given the natural respect for the voluntary willingness to incur risks for the sake of pro bono-outcomes as well as leadership advantages attributed to proactively tackling ethical problems that may likely cover future regulation, Überethicality is thus an implicit social status elevation means apart from any monetary gains.

Under the assumption of individual self-esteem being dependent on social status and human constantly wishing to maintain or gain positive social status, Überethicality is seen as a social status pedestal. How social status striving can drive socially responsible behavior will be studied in an elite education setting. Social preferences as a context-dependent phenomenon will be captured at an educational hub that individuals enter with the hope to improve their social standing and cultural capital. Proactive ethicality can be used to claim or regain social status. In accordance with prospect theory holding that losses loom larger than gains based on an individual reference point, especially the prospect of losing prior social status may trigger individuals’ wish to compensate social status losses by gaining status through ethical acts. This phenomenon will be captured at points in life, when young people are eager to enter a higher social class and acquire the social skills to successfully transfer to a higher class. The idea to use social status prospects as a means to elevate pro-social behavior is a novel and an innovative nudge to drive social conscientiousness in the sustainability domain (Thaler and Sunstein 2008).

In order to investigate whether social status is related to ethicality in a way prospect theory would suggest, two studies tested if social status prospects lead to a rise in ethicality and if – in accordance with prospect theory and Überethicality assumptions – social status losses are associated with higher degrees of ethicality than social status gain prospects at an elite educational institution.

In accordance with prospect theory and Überethicality notions, study 1 tested if social status losses are more likely to be answered with ethicality than social status gain perspectives. People were nudged into ethicality in the prospect of losing social reputation and access to social capital in the educational sector and sustainability domain.

Empirical Results

A field experiment was staged at dormitories of a North American elite university during the 2011 summer that scrutinized if (1) the mere presence of social identity in combination with social norm cues leads to a rise in ethicality and if (2) social status losses heighten ethicality more than social status gain prospects.

The empirical evidence collected at a university environment was chosen for the unique setting of young individuals joining the summer school eager to enter a higher social class and acquire the social skills to successfully transfer to a better social standing. Academic circles and university settings are opinion leaders and educators of future leaders and can therefore be considered as a valid social laboratory. The data collected itself was in the sustainability domain featuring application in recycling and energy light consumption with widespread applicability to very many different outlets in the public and private sectors.

Four similar on-campus summer school residences were selected for creating different status experiences. During a summer school at a North American university campus, the summer school students, comprising of high school students, lived in the regular university campus dormitories. Four dormitories were chosen to stage field experiments featuring an observation of the summer school students’ recycling behavior. In total, 711 summer school students lived in the selected dormitories, whose recycling choices were observed in 4 independent dormitories. The female and male students – mostly from the United States – were summer school attendees, mostly in their last year of high school, who took a 7-week-long program to specialize in classes in the fields of “arts, humanities, and social sciences”; “business,” “computer science, math, and engineering”; “foreign language and literatures”; “sciences”; and “writing and journalism.” The university chosen was an Ivy League, and therefore a certain distinct social status bias occurs.

Per dormitory, an average of 178 students’ environmentally conscientious behavior was recorded every working day of the observation period. All dormitories were home to summer school students with approximately the same schedule – for instance, summer school students faced the same arrival period, study and exam periods, and move-out times. Extraneous influences that potentially could lead to a higher amount of disposals – like cardboard boxes from moving in or out – were therefore assumed to be constant for all dormitories.

In order to capture the effect of social identity pegged to social norm cues on socially responsible environmental ethicality (Hypothesis 1), the impact of a 3-week exposure to university logos and “Sustainability” initiative logos on summer school students’ recycling behavior was observed.

For 6 weeks during the 2011 summer school, the residing summer school students faced different environments. Some of them were exposed to logos of the university (Test condition 1 representing social identity status striving), others to “Sustainability” initiative logos of the university (Test condition 2 representing social, ethical norms), others to both logos concurrently (Test condition 3 representing social identity status striving pegged to social, ethical norms), and even others did not see university logos or “Sustainability” logos of the university in dormitory recycling areas at all (Control condition 1, neutral).

Four posters were placed in each of the selected test dormitories around the recycling bins and buckets. Two of the 8.3 × 11.7-inche-sized posters displayed the university logo featuring the emblem and letters of the university slogan on a red shield and below the university name on a white bandage. Two other posters exhibited the “Sustainability” initiative logo featuring the described emblem and letters of the slogan a green shield and on the right-hand side the words “Sustainability” and the name of the university. Both logos were printed in color on individual posters filling approximately two thirds of the poster. All hardcover printouts of the university logo or “Sustainability” initiative logos were secured by a waterproof, lucent shield. The posters were placed on the wall next to recycling bins and buckets with easily removable tape. A similar poster location in all dormitory recycling areas was chosen. No posters were placed on doors, fences, entry posts, gates, poles, utility, or sidewalks.

In the test dormitory, four copies of the university logo or “Sustainability” logos per dormitory were installed concurrently around the recycling bins and buckets. In order to have comparison groups, the recycling behavior in three other, independent university dormitories of a North American campus was observed during the entire 6-week observatory period. In two of the other test dormitories, four copies of the university logo or “Sustainability” initiative logos were placed around the recycling bins and buckets. The control dormitory remained without logo installment. The time of the logo exposure was balanced between dormitories – one dormitory remained without any logos in the first 3 weeks and two featured no logos in the last 3 weeks in order to control for general temporal biases.

In the first 3 weeks, 153 students of test dormitory 1 were exposed to university and “Sustainability” logos. Test dormitory 2, which hosted 161 summer school students, did not feature any logo exposure prior to a planned future “Sustainability” logo exposure. Test dormitory 3 exposed university logos to 147 students. The control dormitory, in which 250 summer school students lived, had no logos.

In the beginning of week 4 of the field observation, the conditions changed for all the test dormitories. The 153 students of the test dormitory 1, in which students were exposed to university and “Sustainability” logos, faced an environment without any logo exposure. Test dormitory 2, hosting 161 summer school students – that did not feature any logo before – now showed “Sustainability” logos. In test dormitory 3 – with prior university logos exposed to 147 students – the logos were removed. The control dormitory, in which 250 summer school students lived, remained without logo exposure.

The recycling behavior of 2011 North American dormitories’ residents was observed by weighting recycled disposals. Recycled waste was measured every day during the regular disposal collection in the four respective dormitories during the summer school. The recycled disposals were weighted on a regular scale. The weight of different recycling buckets was recorded manually on a paper spreadsheet and the data transferred onto an Excel computer spreadsheet later each day of the data collection.

The recycling behavior during times of exposure versus non-exposure to logos was compared within the test dormitory. In addition, the effect of logo installment versus non-logo exposure was captured between dormitories. The effect is determined by a significant change in the recycled disposals’ weight.

The combined presence of university logos and “Sustainability” initiative logos heightened common goal compliance. After a time of exposure to the combined logos, in the phase of the removed social status and social norm insignia, pro-social behavior increased significantly (t(27) = −2. 042; p < 0.032), which was not the case in any of the other dormitories. Figure 1 holds the recycled weight during university and “Sustainability” logo exposure recycled weight monitored within the test dormitory over time. Logo versus non-logo exposure impacts on recycled disposals’ weight within the test dormitory. Removed university in combination with “Sustainability” logos heighten recycling compliance significantly.
Fig. 1

Within test dormitory comparison of recycled weight during university and “Sustainability” logo exposure and afterward

Figure 2 holds the recycled weight during university and “Sustainability” logo exposure recycled weight monitored within the test dormitory over time. Logo versus non-logo exposure impacts on recycled disposals’ weight within the test dormitory. Removed university in combination with “Sustainability” logos heighten recycling compliance significantly.
Fig. 2

Between test dormitory comparisons of recycled weight during university and “Sustainability” logo exposure and afterward

Logo versus non-logo exposure impacts on the environmental ethicality measured by recycled disposals’ weight between the test dormitories and the control dormitory. Removed university in combination with “Sustainability” logos heighten recycling compliance significantly when comparing between dormitories (one-way ANOVA F(7,104) = 5. 914, p<0.000). Recycling compliance was measured based on the recycled weight per resident during exposure and after exposure to cues.

Study 1 provides evidence for ethicality being a context-dependent phenomenon nudgeable by social forces. Social status prospects can steer ethicality. Social identity and social status striving in combination with social norms can be used to improve day-to-day environmental protection behavior. Building on prospect theory, social status losses more likely trigger social norm compliance than prospective social status gains. Another study was designed to test if the effect of social status losses nudging people into social conscientiousness holds for environmentally conscientious energy consumption.

An additional field experiment at two North American university libraries targeted at investigating if (1) the mere presence of social identity in combination with social norm cues leads to a rise in ethicality and if (2) social status losses heighten ethicality more than social status gain perspectives.

The field experiment comprised of a field observation at two North American university libraries featuring user-controllable light switches at reading desks and carrels. In a quasi-public location of two university libraries that are accessible by all general students, researchers, and affiliates of the university, data was collected during 6 weeks. For 6 weeks, the energy light consumption was monitored and recorded manually.

In the first 2 weeks, the field experiment featured a baseline observation of energy light consumption without any installation followed by a 2-week exposure to social status symbols and “Sustainability” initiative logos featuring slogans followed by 2 weeks with removed logo exposure.

In order to capture the effect of social identity and social norm cues on socially responsible energy light consumption (Hypothesis 1) in a field observation, at one university, library students were exposed to university logos (Test condition 1 representing social identity status striving) and “Sustainability” (Test condition 2 representing social, ethical norms) at the respective university logos plus instructions to “Please avoid losing energy by switching off lights after use” (Test condition 3 representing social identity status striving pegged to social, ethical norms) for 2 weeks. The postcard-sized (5,1 × 3,1 inches) stickers displayed the university logo and/or “Sustainability” initiative banners stating “Please avoid losing energy by switching off lights after use” in color filling approximately two thirds of the card.

The cards were formed into cardboard tents. The tents were placed onto reading desks and carrels on three floors of one of the chosen university libraries. Per reading desk, either one or two tents were placed so that a person sitting at a carrel would see one tent. At the desks, three tents were installed so that approximately one to two people sitting down and using the reading desk would directly face one tent and could potentially also see two other tents. On the first floor of the test library, approximately 32 university logos were put on the reading desks and carrels. At the second floor of the test library, approximately 47 cardboard tents displaying the “Sustainability” at the respective university logo were placed on reading desks and carrels under scrutiny so that one reading desk user could see one tent. On the third floor of the test library, approximately 120 cardboard tents displaying the university logo and the “Sustainability” at the respective university logo were shown on the reading desks and carrels in similar locations per reading desk and carrel so that approximately one person could see one tent. All tents were maintained throughout the observation period and replaced on a daily basis if missing or damaged. As a control group, the energy light consumption of another library of the university campus was observed independently during the study. The control library (Control condition 1, neutral) remained without any logo or instruction placement.

The energy light consumption was observed several times daily in the respective libraries for 6 weeks. During the prospective observation time, the energy light consumption was recoded manually on a paper spreadsheet and transferred on an electronic computer spreadsheet on a daily basis. The library visitors were not informed about the energy light consumption measurement to avoid study participation biases. All information on energy light consumption was recorded in such a manner that the consumers were never identifiable insofar as linking the consumption to the individual library visitors, who were potentially university college and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, scholars, and professors. All observation data was collected and analyzed anonymously. During the energy meter data collection, no contact with students or affiliates studying or working in the library was sought. At no point, there was any disruptive research activities that could influence or affect the study activities of library visitors.

The energy light consumption during times of exposure versus non-exposure to social status insignia and social norms instructions was compared over time within the test library and between the test and the control library. The recorded energy light consumption conscientiousness was measured by creating an index of abandoned burning lights divided by used burning lights per floor of the observed test library and the entire control library.

As Fig. 3 exhibits, significantly improved energy consumption conscientiousness was found for the floors featuring the university logo (t = 3. 127, df = 106, p<0.002) for the 2-week period after the logo had been removed. Improved energy consumption conscientiousness was recorded in the wake of removed university logos and social norm instructions. Significantly improved energy consumption conscientiousness was exhibited for the floors featuring the “Sustainability” at the university logo (t = 2.898, df = 85, p < 0.005) for the 2-week period after the logo had been removed. When comparing the energy light consumption conscientiousness between the test library and the control library, there was a significant effect between libraries (ANOVA, F(3, 578) = 7.009, p < 0.000) after removed logos (p < 0.001). When comparing the test library floor featuring university logos and the control library, there was a significant increase of energy light consumption conscientiousness after the removal of status symbols in the test library (ANOVA, F(7) = 6. 695, p < 0.000) after removed logos (p < 0.025). When comparing the test library floor featuring “Sustainability” signs and slogans between the control library, there was a significant increase of energy light consumption conscientiousness after the removal of social norm cues and instructions in the test library (ANOVA, F(7) = 6.695, p < 0.025) after removed logos (p < 0.000). While there was a significant change in the light energy consumption in the test library, there was no significant change in the control library without any logos.
Fig. 3

Between test and control library comparison of energy light consumption before and after logo exposure

Overall, the presented studies provide evidence for ethicality being a context-dependent phenomenon. In the field of behavioral law and economics, connecting social status to ethicality contributes to the upcoming trend of sociology entering behavioral economics. Capturing social forces as the core of collective decision-making on social responsibility at the same time spearheads the idea of ethicality as a natural behavioral law. The presented results serve as evidence for situational cues as the driver of pro-social decision-making.

On a practical basis, pegging social status to ethicality is a novel idea to use social forces as a means for accomplishing positive societal change (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). Unraveling social status striving affecting ethical decision-making thereby helps fostering socially responsible goals beyond stringent legal enforcement and governmental policy control. Deriving information on circumstances under which decision-makers are likely to exhibit social responsibility grants recommendations on how social forces can be used to stimulate socially responsible outcomes.


The presented connection of social status and social conscientiousness will help promoting ethicality. In a plethora of research on ethical downfalls and negative consequences of accidental ethical decision-making failures, Überethicality is a powerful contribution shedding light on how to strengthen our inner ethical forces. Understanding ethical decision-making under social uncertainty allows fostering a moral dimension of social life. Exploring further how psychological ownership and social status attributions can drive socially conscientious behavior offers cost-effective, easily implementable ethicality nudges to steer and promote socially responsible acts on a daily basis (Thaler and Sunstein 2008).

The current research also serves as a way to better understand the socio-dynamics of environmental ethicality. The application of social identity on environmental ethicality is an unprecedented approach to prepare for major challenges ahead for humankind in the light of climate change and natural resource constraints (Dhiman forthcoming). Finding circumstances under which decision-makers are environmentally conscientious and potentially identifying social forces that trigger environmental ethicality are aimed at modeling day-to-day environmental protection decision-making and find easily manipulated, real-world relevant sustainability incentives. On a grand scale, relating individual experiences to future common goals will allow public policy specialists in designing contexts that advance societal welfare and sustainable prosperity. Modeling the full realm of social decision-making promises nudges to steer civic virtues and motivate citizens to contribute to common goals.

The results can be considered transferable to other situations and social environments. Future research on social status losses as drivers of ethicality in the corporate domain appears interesting. Further, age variant differences in social group membership relevance could be additional research areas evolving out of these preliminary results. The results could also be transferred into other social domains, such as community service, ethical consumption, and charity giving. All these extensions would help solidify the case of a connection between social status and ethicality as well as social responsibility arising out of social status loss experiences.

Exploring ethicality in the light of social status drops is novel, and the results lead to very many different applications in the public and private sector domains. At current, we do not have any further information whether this effect is more likely to be driven by a rational calculus or rather an emotional whim. Although we find social status losses to be answered with ethicality, we do not know if ethicality spikes in the eye of social status losses are caused by a more future-oriented rational calculus or more likely to be elicited by an unconscious wish to release from a feeling of unworthiness in order to compensate for unpleasant past social status losses. Unanswered remains in this finding whether social status-related ethicality derives from a future-oriented cognitive strategy or a more subconscious emotional compensation mechanism in the aftermath of social status drops. Ethicality in the light of social status losses could be a rational calculus to gain a competitive advantage. In the wake of social status losses, individuals may strategically use pro-social acts to enhance their status by egoistic altruism (Becker 1976). At the same time, social status losses could also be accompanied by feelings of unworthiness and ethicality be a means to compensate for hurtful losses. As such, ethicality may serve as a way to relieve from a feeling of unworthiness in the wake of former social status drops.


Future follow-up studies may therefore investigate if social status loss-related ethicality is more likely to be associated with a rational profit maximization calculus or emotional loss compensation act. Exploring if social status-driven ethicality is more of a cognitive-rational strategy than subconscious, emotional social status loss compensation will help understanding the underlying mechanisms of social identity and societal responsibility.

Future planned research could add laboratory experiments to back our findings in the field. Finding similar effects in a controlled environment, for instance, by having students recycle under different conditions as they leave an experimental session or partake in some other type of ethical behavior, could back the hereby presented results. Extrapolating the results onto the organizational level would allow professionals to develop practical remedies on how to strengthen their inner moral muscle in a work setting. The distinct sample provides a peculiar snapshot of elite education, which leaves the generalizability of the results onto other religious groups, gender, age, and classes an open research question. On the micro level, it would also be interesting to see how the actual social environment plays a role and if the influence of social contexts changes throughout life. Additional research projects could address intercultural nuances of social status membership effects. Future investigations about different ethical dilemmas could provide additional practical applications of social status as a driver of ethicality following the greater goal of finding strategies on how to ensure a pro-social and sustainable humankind.



  1. Adams, J. S. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. In K. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 267–299). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  2. Adler, N. E., Epel, E. S., Castellazzo, G., & Ickovics, J. R. (2000). Relationship of subjective and objective social status with psychological and physiological functioning: Preliminary data in healthy, white women. Health Psychology, 19(6), 586–592.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Axelrod, R. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  4. Bales, R. F. (1951). Channels of communication in small groups. American Sociological Review, 16, 461–468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ball, S. B., & Eckel, C. C. (1996). Buying status: Experimental evidence on status in negotiation. Psychology & Marketing, 13(4), 381–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bazerman, M. H., & Chugh, D. (2005). Bounded awareness: Focusing failures in negotiation. In L. Thompson (Ed.), Frontiers of social psychology: Negotiation (pp. 7–26). New York: Psychological Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bazerman, M. H., & Moore, D. A. (2008). Judgment in managerial decision-making. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  8. Bazerman, M. H., & Tenbrunsel, A. E. (2011). Blind spots: Why we fail to do what is right and what to do about it. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Becker, G. (1976). Altruism, egoism, and genetic fitness: Economics and sociobiology. Journal of Economic Literature, 14, 817–826.Google Scholar
  10. Berger, J. M., & Zelditch, M. J. (1985). Status, rewards, and influence. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.Google Scholar
  11. Bird, C. (2004). Status, identity, and respect. Political Theory, 32(2), 207–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bourdieu, P. (1979/1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Chance, E. (1967). Group psychotherapy in community mental health programs. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 37(5), 920–925.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Chernev, A. (2009). Goal orientation and consumer preference for the status quo. Retrievable at
  15. Cole, H., Mailath, G., & Postlewaite, A. (1992). Social norms, savings behavior, and growth. Journal of Political Economy, 100(6), 1092–1125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Coleman, J. S. (1990). Foundations of social theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Currim, I. S., & Sarin, R. K. (1989). Prospect versus utility. Management Science, 35(1), 22–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dhiman, S. (forthcoming). To eat or not to eat meat: Striking at the root of global warming! In S. Dhiman & J. Marques (Eds.), Handbook of engaged sustainability. Springer.Google Scholar
  19. DiTella, R., Haisken-De New, J., & MacCulloch, R. (2001). Happiness adaptation to income and to status in an individual panel. Working paper, Harvard Business School.Google Scholar
  20. Duesenberry, J. S. (1949). Income, saving and the theory of consumer behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Easterlin, R. A. (1974). Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. New York: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Falkenstein, E. (2006). Why risk and return are uncorrelated: A relative status approach. Working paper, Eden Prairie, Telluride Asset Management.Google Scholar
  23. Fan, E. T., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (1998). When needs outweigh desires: The effects of resource interdependence and reward interdependence on group problem solving. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 20, 45–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Fox, S., & Dayan, K. (2004). Framing and risky choice as influenced by comparison of one’s achievements with others: The case of investment in the stock exchange. Journal of Business and Psychology, 18(3), 301–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Friedman, M. (1953). Choice, chance and the personal distribution of income. Journal of Political Economy, 61(4), 277–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Friedman, M., & Savage, L. J. (1948). The utility analysis of choices involving risk. Journal of Political Economy, 56(4), 279–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Galiani, S., & Weinschelbaum, F. (2007). Social status and corruption. Retrievable at
  29. Gil-Doménech, D., & Berbegal-Mirabent, J. (forthcoming). People + planet + profit: Training sustainable entrepreneurs at the university level. In S. Dhiman & J. Marques (Eds.), Handbook of engaged sustainability. Springer.Google Scholar
  30. Güth, W., & Tietz, R. (1990). Ultimatum bargaining behavior: A survey and comparison of experimental results. Journal of Economic Psychology, 11, 417–449.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Harbaugh, R. (2006). Prospect theory or skill signaling? Retrievable at Scholar
  32. Hong, K., & Bohnet, I. (2004). Status and distrust: The relevance of inequality and betrayal aversion. RWP04–041. Working paper, Harvard Kennedy School.Google Scholar
  33. Hopkins, E., & Kornienko, T. (2004). Running to keep the same place: Consumer choice as a game of status. American Economic Review, 94(4), 1085–1107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Huberman, B. A., Loch, C., & Önçüler, A. (2004). Status as a valued resource. Social Psychology Quarterly, 6(1), 103–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  36. Jervis, R. (1992). Political implications of loss aversion. Political Psychology, 13(2), 187–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(12), 1325–1347.Google Scholar
  38. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 263–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1992). Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 5, 297–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (2000). Choices, values, and frames. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Keyes, C. W. (1966). Cicero, M. T. De republica, De legibus. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Levy, J. S. (1997). Prospect theory, rational choice, and international relations. International Studies Quarterly, 41(1), 87–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Levy, J. S. (2003). Applications of prospect theory to political science. Decision Theory, 135(2), 215–241.Google Scholar
  44. Loch, C. H., Huberman, B. A., & Stout, S. K. (2000). Status competition and performance in work groups. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 43, 35–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Loewenstein, G. F., Thompson, L., & Bazerman, M. H. (1989). Social utility and decision-making in interpersonal contexts. Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, 57(3), 426–441.Google Scholar
  46. Marques, J. (forthcoming). Moving forward with social responsibility: Shifting gears from why to how. In S. Dhiman & J. Marques (Eds.), Handbook of engaged sustainability. Springer.Google Scholar
  47. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Mazur, A. (1973). A cross-species comparison of status in small established groups. American Sociological Review, 38(5), 513–530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Mazur, A., & Lamb, T. A. (1980). Testosterone, status and mood in human males. Hormones and Behavior, 14(3), 236–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. McDermott, R., Fowler, J. H., & Smirnov, O. (2008). On the evolutionary origin of prospect theory preferences. Journal of Politics, 70, 335–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Meeker, B. F., & Weitzel-O’Neill, P. A. (1977). Sex roles and interpersonal behavior in task-oriented groups. American Sociological Review, 42, 91–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Nowak, M. A., & Sigmund, K. (1998). Evolution of indirect reciprocity by image scoring. Nature, 393, 573–577.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Postlewaite, A. (1998). The social basis of interdependent preferences. European Economic Review, 42(3–5), 779–800.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Puaschunder, J. M. (2010). On corporate and financial social responsibility. Dissertation, University of Vienna.Google Scholar
  55. Puaschunder, J. M. (2015). Meritocracy and intergenerational mobility. The Worldly Philosopher Blog. Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. Retrievable at
  56. Puaschunder, J. M. (2016). The beauty of ivy: When inequality meets equality. Global Journal of Management and Business Research: Economics and Commerce, 16(3), 1–11.Google Scholar
  57. Ramananan, R. (forthcoming). Responsible investing and corporate social responsibility for engaged sustainability: Managing pitfalls of economics without equity. In S. Dhiman & J. Marques (Eds.), Handbook of engaged sustainability. Springer.Google Scholar
  58. Ridgeway, C. L., Berger, J., & Smith, L. R. (1985). Nonverbal cues and status: An expectation states approach. American Journal of Sociology, 90(5), 955–978.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Ridgeway, C. L., & Walker, H. A. (1995). Status structures. In K. Cook, G. Fine, & J. House (Eds.), Sociological perspectives on social psychology (pp. 281–310). New York: Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  60. Robson, A. J. (1992). Status, the distribution of wealth, private and social attitudes to risk. Econometrica, 60(4), 837–857.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Roussanov, N. (2009). Diversification and its discontents: Idiosyncratic and entrepreneurial risk in the quest for social status. Working paper, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.Google Scholar
  62. Savin-Williams, R. C. (1979). Dominance hierarchies in groups of early adolescents. Child Development, 50(4), 923–935.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does living in California make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 9(5), 340–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Siegel, J. J. (2002). Stocks for the long run. New York: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  66. Tajfel, H. (1978). Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations. London: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  67. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 94–109). Monterey: Brooks-Cole.Google Scholar
  68. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel & L. W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7–24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.Google Scholar
  69. Tenbrunsel, A. E., & Messick, D. M. (2004). Ethical fading: The role of self-deception in unethical behavior. Social Justice Research, 17(2), 223–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Thaler, R. H. (1999). Mental accounting matters. Journal of Behavioral Decision-making, 12, 183–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. S. (2008). Nudge: Improving decision-making about health, wealth and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  72. Tiedens, L. Z. (2000). Powerful emotions: The vicious cycle of social status positions and emotions. In N. M. Ashkanasy & C. E. Haertel (Eds.), Emotions in the workplace: Research, theory, and practice (pp. 72–81). Westport: Greenwood.Google Scholar
  73. Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1990). The past explains the present: Emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environments. Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1991). Loss aversion in riskless choice: A reference dependent model. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 41, 1039–1041.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Ulluwishewa, R. (forthcoming). Education in human values: Planting the seed of sustainability in young minds. In S. Dhiman & J. Marques (Eds.), Handbook of engaged sustainability. Springer.Google Scholar
  76. Weber, M. (1946/2009). Essays in sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  77. Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  78. Wedekind, C. (1998). Enhanced: Give and ye shall be recognized. Science, 280, 2070–2071.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Weisband, S. P., Schneider, S. K., & Connolly, T. (1995). Computer-mediated communication and social information: Status salience and status differences. Academy of Management Journal, 38(4), 1124–1151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Young, I. M. (2011). Responsibility for justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Zimbardo, Ph. (2011a). My journey from evil to heroism. Speech delivered at Webster University. 31 May 2011. Vienna.Google Scholar
  82. Zimbardo, Ph. (2011b). Evil no! Heroes yes! Speech delivered at Harvard Law School. 26 Oct 2011. Cambridge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The New School, Department of EconomicsSchwartz Center for Economic Policy AnalysisNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Graduate School of Arts and SciencesColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  3. 3.Princeton UniversityPrincetonUSA
  4. 4.Schwartz Center for Economics Policy AnalysisNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations