The Reference Point Bias in Judging Cheaters

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25 May 2020

Do observers judge differently a wrongdoer when s/he does not exploit the situation to its maximum extent? Using a social intuitionist perspective and taking into account the reference point bias, we hypothesize that people will judge less severely a moral wrongdoing when the situation is not exploited to its fullest extent. Thanks to an experimental survey in France, we examine whether various wrongdoings performed in the business realm (overcharging travel expenses, overstating work hours, pollution) are judged less severely when differing reference points are suggested: (i) no explicit reference point is mentioned, (ii) the maximum extent is reached, (iii) the maximum extent is not reached. Our findings support that participants judge less severely a wrongdoer, when it is indicated that s/he has not exploited the situation to its fullest extent. In addition of maintaining their self-concepts, our findings suggest that partial cheaters can also emphasize their self-restraint to mitigate judgement and punishment if they get caught. We draw some managerial and policy implications.