volkswagen emissions scandal USA 2016
When organizations are exposed for large-scale corrupt behaviour, the blame usually rests with many individuals rather than just one or two, as occurred during the Volkswagen emissions scandal.REUTERS/Mike Blake

A new study has shown how the dynamics of being in a group environment can potentially influence honest people into behaving dishonestly, especially when there is money at stake.

When organisations are exposed for large-scale corrupt behaviour, the blame usually rests with many individuals rather than just one or two, such as during the Volkswagen emissions scandal,.

The research, published in the journal Management Science, looked at what motivates a group to work together to act immorally.

Researchers from the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich observed 273 participants, who were paid for their time, in individual and group experiments. They were shown videos of dice being rolled and asked to report the resulting number, receiving money when they did so. The higher the number they reported, the more money they were given.

This experiment took place individually and in two group settings where participants could communicate with each other via a chat feature. In the first group setting, all members of the group had to report the same die roll to receive a payoff. In the second, the members did not have to report the same die roll to be compensated.

In total, 78 different groups participated in the study with the team finding that more than half of the group chats contained discussions explicitly advocating dishonest reporting. In fact, of all the messages that were sent between group members, around 43% were arguing for dishonest behaviour, while only around 16% called for honesty.

"We observed that groups lie significantly more than individuals when group members face mutual financial gain and have to coordinate an action in order to realise that financial gain," said Martin G. Kocher, an author of the study.

Intriguingly, the team found that dishonesty occurred even in groups where all members had previously responded honestly in the individual tasks.

"The ability for group members to exchange and discuss potential justifications for their dishonest behaviour can create an overall shift in the group's beliefs of what constitutes moral behaviour," said Lisa Spantig, another author of the study.