Air pollution — or even just the thought of it — may actually take an ethical toll, a new study finds
That smog could cloud your judgment.
Air pollution may actually take an ethical toll, a new study published in the journal Psychological Science found. Using archival data and experiments, the researchers found exposure to air pollution predicted crime and other unethical behavior. One apparent mediator, among potential others: anxiety. “Air pollution heightens anxiety, which in turn increases unethical behavior,” the authors wrote.
“This research reveals that air pollution may have potential ethical costs that go beyond its well-known toll on health and the environment,” lead author Jackson G. Lu, a behavioral scientist at Columbia Business School, said in a statement. “This is important because air pollution is a serious global issue that affects billions of people — even in the United States, about 142 million people still reside in counties with dangerously polluted air.”
Armed with existing literature linking air pollution to anxiety, depression and suicide attempts, plus research showing anxiety can boost both violent and nonviolent unethical behaviors, the authors hypothesized that air pollution would increase unethical conduct by raising anxiety. They first tested air pollution’s effects on the FBI’s seven major crime categories — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft — analyzing a nine-year panel of 9,360 American cities. The verdict: “(C)ities with heavier air pollution also tend to have more criminal activity,” even after accounting for several control variables.
A second experiment, citing ethical and practical considerations of exposing study participants to actual air pollution, examined the effect of psychologically experiencing it. More than 250 Amazon Mechanical Turk participants were randomly assigned photos of either polluted or clean areas, then told to imagine living and breathing in those settings. They then performed a seemingly unrelated computer task bearing a 50-cent incentive for correct answers, informed that a glitch would reveal answers if they hovered the mouse over a box. “On average, participants cheated on 2.77 out of 5 trials … analogous to stealing $1.39 from the researchers,” the authors wrote, acknowledging that exposure to photos wasn’t equal to actual pollution exposure.
A final two-part study randomly assigned American university students and Indian MTurk participants to look at polluted or clean shots of locations in Beijing, then pen a five-minute diary entry about living there. The American participants played a die-rolling task that allowed them to cheat; Indian participants answered questions on how far they’d go engaging in unethical negotiation tactics, and the researchers measured anxiety of the samples by two different metrics. “The psychological experience of air pollution increased anxiety, which in turn increased people’s tendency to behave unethically,” they found.
“Air pollution,” the authors concluded, “not only corrupts people’s health, but also can contaminate their morality.” These findings have policymaking implications, they added, arguing they present yet another reason to tackle air pollution. “A less polluted environment is not only a healthier one but also a safer one,” they said.
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