EthicsPeer-Reviewed Research

Rose-Colored Glasses

A bloomed red rose over a gloomy background.
  • Emotions affect the way we understand ethical situations.
  • To parse how the way we feel affects the way we think, Rice Business professor Vikas Mittal studied more than 700 participants, inducing states of mind easily found in any workplace.
  • Employees who feel sad, research showed, are more likely to carefully analyze extreme, unethical behavior than those who feel happy or disgusted.

Somebody left crumpled paper towels in the office restroom. A cat meme made you laugh out loud. Your coworker recently lost his elderly parent. Nearly every day of our working lives, we face situations that unleash a range of emotions. 

Do these emotions affect our understanding of ethics? In a recent study, Rice Business professor Vikas Mittal joined Karen Page Winterich of Pennsylvania State University and Andrea C. Morales of Arizona State University to see if sadness, disgust or happiness impact the way we understand and react to ethics-based decisions. 

The answer: yes, absolutely.

To parse how people respond to unethical behavior when they are sad, happy or disgusted, the researchers launched three separate studies involving more than 700 participants. They induced states of mind easily found in any workplace. Images of a dirty restroom triggered disgust; news of a positive work evaluation sparked joy. 

When workers felt disgusted or happy, the researchers discovered, their brains engaged in heuristic processing – that is, using mental shortcuts to process information. When they felt sad, however, their minds churned in more complex ways: Their judgments about unethical behavior were slower and more deliberative than when they were either happy or disgusted. The processing was similarly slow when they were in a neutral state of mind. 

Neither type of mental processing is inherently good or bad. But it does affect how workers see ethical decisions. Compared to those whose state of mind is sad or merely neutral, happy or disgusted people tend to see minor moral infractions as less important. Different emotional states, in other words, affect our judgment of an ethical infraction’s magnitude. 

To draw causal conclusions about the magnitude of these judgments, the researchers induced sadness, disgust or happiness in participants by asking them to write an autobiographical passage recalling a time when they felt one of those emotions. This primed the subjects with that specific emotional state, after which the researchers presented them with a variety of different unethical behaviors. 

Some of the hypothetical infractions were financial. In one experiment, for example, the subjects read scenarios describing behaviors such as tax fraud, insurance fraud and outright theft. And some of the scenarios were nonfinancial, but horrifying: for example, subjects were told to imagine situations involving cannibalism.

When a subject feels disgust, the researchers reasoned, it triggers a distancing reaction, leading her to withdraw both physically and psychologically. After all, people seem to naturally pull back from any disgusting situation. Because of this distancing effect, the subjects brains processed the unethical scenarios heuristically, using mental shortcuts. 

Interestingly, subjects who felt cheerful showed a response similar to that of people who were repulsed. That’s because happy people rely more on mental shortcuts and don’t bother systematically processing their judgments. Just like disgusted people, they tend to heuristically process whatever tasks they engage in, Mittal and his colleagues write. 

These shortcuts essentially meant that the subjects who felt disgust or happiness relied almost entirely on the gravity of an infraction itself to make moral judgments on unethical behaviors. 

The workplace implications are significant. Employees or managers who feel sad, Mittal writes, are more likely to pull their weight and carefully analyze unethical behavior, however extreme or minor. Conversely, workers who are either disgusted or happy rely more on simply the magnitude of the ethical infraction when making judgments. 

Most employees aren’t interested in embezzling a million dollars from the company coffers. But they might be tempted to fudge an expense report or pocket office supplies after hours. 

So if a coworker seems fixated on the icky washroom floor, or has simply fallen deliriously in love, it may worth a gentle reminder that if they see something unethical happening, they should say something. Even if it requires a second look.


Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Winterich, K. P., Morales, A. C., & Mittal, V. (2015). Disgusted or happy, it is not so bad: Emotional mini-max in unethical judgments. Journal of Business Ethics, 130(2), 343-360.