Breaking bad behaviour – overcoming short-term temptations

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Behaving morally requires the ability to act on long-term goals and commitments, and to overcome the lure of short-lived joys. How are we able to do that? New research by PhD candidate Gijs van Houwelingen of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) reveals that focusing on the bigger picture instead of small details can help.

In his dissertation Something to Rely On: The Influence of Stable and Fleeting Drivers on Moral Behavior, Gijs van Houwelingen argues that cognitive abstraction allows us to concentrate on what we find important in the long run (‘stable drivers’). On the other hand, concrete cognition, enhances the effect of short-lived influences (‘fleeting drivers’).

Scientifically, this situational sensitivity of cognition is called construal level. Abstract cognition, or high-construal level, implies taking a ‘mental step back’ from the here and now. Because of this, high-construal level facilitates the expression of stable drivers in behaviour. Thinking concretely, or low-construal level, makes us more susceptible to situational influences.

In his doctoral research, Van Houwelingen discovered that people in high-construal level apply moral rules and norms to decide on punishment. People in low-construal level, however, use situational factors to determine appropriate levels of discipline.  Additionally, he validated that construal level differs between individuals; some people tend to think more abstractly, whereas others tend to think more concretely. Construal level can also be situationally induced by, for example, proximity between punisher and punished. Other forms of moral behaviour Van Houwelingen studied included co-operation and trust restoration.

So, construal level works a little like a ‘filter’. High level construal facilitates the expression of stable moral principles and norms while muting the influence of the situation. Low construal level has the opposite effect.”Van Houwelingen proves this for several forms of moral behaviour, including co-operation, punishment and trust restoration.

This finding is especially interesting from this moral point of view, as moral behaviour often requires that people overcome the influence of the fleeting and focus on the stable. Often, but not always, fleeting influences lead people astray from what is morally required. A case in point is where short-term self-interest leads people to exploit an interaction partner, rather than co-operate with them. In other words: whether or not people can think in abstract ways may very well determine whether they are able to act morally in the first place.

Van Houwelingen collected most of the data through different types of experiments, either in the lab or on the web. In particular, he developed an experimental game, in which participants thought they were co-operating with one another. When one of the players misbehaved, Van Houwelingen was able to observe for instance punishment by the other player. This allowed him to study moral behaviour in a systematic way without having to compromise the realism of settings.

This research has two important implications. People that think abstractly are less likely to be corruptible, as corruption is typically facilitated by responding to fleeting cues, such as bribes. Secondly, management styles like transactional leadership (promising bonuses) are more likely to be effective for concrete thinkers since these incentives are typically fleeting drivers.

In other words, organisations that rely on setting incentives to motivate workers are better off hiring people with a concrete thinking style. Positions in which personal integrity is especially important (for instance compliance) people with abstract thinking styles are better off.

Dissertation abstract

In virtually any situation, people encounter short-lived influences that lure us to act in a certain way. The influence of such ‘fleeting drivers’ may or may not be in line our long-term goals and commitments, also referred to as ‘stable drivers’. Moral behaviour in particular often requires the ability to overcome the influence of fleeting drivers such as self-interest, as well as to act on stable ones, such as moral principles. This dissertation explores what determines the relative influence of both types of influence on people’s moral behaviour. Van Houwelingen gives a surprising answer: cognitive abstraction, or ‘construal level’. Abstract cognition (high-construal level) allows us to mentally disengage from the ‘here’ and ‘now’ and therefore quells the influence of fleeting drivers. Concrete cognition (low-construal level), on the other hand, enhances the influence of fleeting drivers. So, high-construal level is associated with behaviour that is driven more strongly by abstract moral principles, such as moral norms. Low-construal level is associated with behaviour that is driven more strongly by situational factors. Van Houwelingen shows this to be true for several different forms of moral behaviour, including co-operation, punishment and trust restoration.

About the author

Gijs van Houwelingen (1985) was born in Middelburg, the Netherlands. He joined ERIM in 2010 as a first-generation ‘Open PhD’-candidate. Before that he obtained bachelor and master degrees (both cum laude) in philosophy (Leiden University and VU University Amsterdam) as well as economics (VU University Amsterdam and University of Amsterdam). His research is either published or under review at different important journals within the field of organizational behaviour, among them Journal of Management, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and European Journal for Social Psychology. He is currently leading the research project on effective learning methods for moral decision making by professionals in the Dutch prison system. He plans to continue his career in a non-academic setting upon finishing the project in March 2015.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is a top tier European business school and ranked among the top three for research. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who carry their innovative mindset into a sustainable future thanks to a first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes. RSM also has offices in the Amsterdam Zuidas business district and in Taipei, Taiwan.

For more information about RSM or on this release, please contact Ramses Singeling, Media Officer on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at

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