NEW YORK – With the American West burning more intensely each fall, poor air quality is becoming a new normal in parts of the United States. Affected residents are experiencing worsening flu seasons, respiratory problems, and compromised immune systems as a result of the toxic air. But that noxious air can also have the additional societal impact of making crime part of the new normal. According to new research from Columbia Business School Professor Adam Galinsky, unethical behavior – including violent and nonviolent crime, delinquency, and cheating – increases with worsening air pollution.
In the new study based on two meta-analyses, “Air Pollution, State Anxiety, and Unethical Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Professor Galinsky establishes that there is an overall positive and statistically significant relationship between air pollution and unethical behavior across the many studies that have looked into this question. Pollution causes distress – the kind triggered in reaction to a potential threat – that inhibits moral reasoning and promotes decision-making based in self-interest and unethical behavior.
“High levels of air pollution can trigger psychological and physiological stress, which causes people to think and act less ethically,” said Adam Galinsky, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. “Polluted air can lead to a toxic society when it produces crime. This impact is especially important today as climate change contributes to major pollution events such as wildfires across the country.”
The new research, co-authored with MIT Professor Jackson Lu, University of Michigan Professor Julia Lee, and Harvard Professor Francesca Gino, conducts two meta-analyses of existing research: the first surveys 22 quantitative studies on the relationship between air pollution and unethical behavior, and the second reviews 14 quantitative studies on the link between state anxiety and unethical behavior. They found that air pollution, and the anxiety it causes, is linked to all manner of unethical behavior: including economic crimes, violent crimes, cheating, and more. Importantly their research spanned geographic regions across the world. The co-authors do, however, express caution on whether the link between air pollution and unethical behavior can be generalized into all contexts, citing other factors like healthcare, housing conditions, and general cultural diversity.
“Our conclusions only scratch the surface of the ways in which pollution – and by extension, climate change – affect our society and behaviors. Policymakers must appreciate these links to address the root causes of human suffering and violence,” Professor Galinsky said. “To further this work, future research must pinpoint the relationships between specific air pollutants and specific forms of unethical behavior, so that we can truly begin to mitigate societal ills resulting from pollution.”
The study, published in Psychological Science, can be found online: here.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Adam Galinsky is the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at the Columbia Business School.
Professor Galinsky has published more than...Read more.