New study reveals correlation between air pollution and unethical behavior

Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 5:21pm

More than 125 million Americans are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air Report. The environmental and health ramifications of air pollution are well documented: Haze, ozone depletion, acid rain and lung cancer are among many of the consequences that result. But social costs, like increased criminal activity, may also result from the worsening air quality, according to research by a University of Michigan professor.

Julia Lee, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business, explored the correlation between unethical behavior and air pollution in a study with researchers from Columbia University and Harvard University. The findings, soon to be published in the Psychological Science journal, demonstrate a relationship between the anxiety caused by pollution and social ills.

Lee first became interested in behavioral ethics while earning her doctorate degree in Public Policy at Harvard. She began to look at the relationship between air pollution and unethical behavior with her former adviser Francesca Gino, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

“We had some initial data from FBI and EPA, but realized that putting together a large dataset and accounting for many possible confounds (e.g., demographics, # of police officers, etc) may be a daunting task, and that’s when we decided to team up with Jackson Lu and Adam Galinsky at Columbia Business School,” Lee wrote in an email interview.

Lee and her colleagues analyzed vast datasets, combining the Environmental Protection Agency’s city-level pollution data with the FBI’s city-level crime data, allowing them to analyze 9,360 American cities in total.

“Jackson loved talking about how comprehensive this dataset was by reporting that the data had 17 different cities across different states that were all named ‘Springfield,’” Lee wrote.

Ultimately, the team found strong correlations between unethical behavior and pollution, and believe anxiety related to pollution may be at the heart of the issue.

“There is an existing body of work showing that air pollution increases stress and anxiety,” Lee wrote. “Francesca Gino and I had already done some work on how engaging in unethical behavior might reduce people’s anxiety at least temporarily, and demonstrated that cheating resulted in the reduction in participants’ stress hormone (cortisol). Based on these evidence, we predicted that air pollution may be related to unethical behavior by increasing anxiety.”

These results demonstrate costs associated with air pollution are higher than previously recorded. Public Health junior Faith Reynolds hopes research on the social ills of pollution can motivate behavioral and political change.

“We have known for so long that human actions and activity have harmful effects on our environment, but when it comes to affecting behavioral patterns it becomes more relevant to our everyday lives and decisions,” she said. “I really hope more work is done in this field and that it can motivate policymakers and especially polluters to make serious changes.”

Not only do the recent findings impact cities, they also have implications on university campuses. It is possible air pollutants could correlate to academic dishonesty in the same way they do with crime and cheating, Lee said.

“We haven’t tested whether students tend to cheat more on the days that were heavily polluted, but in general, I suspect that the overarching psychological mechanism would be the same,” she wrote. “I can imagine that students who work in the environment that is heavily polluted may be more prone to cheating.”

Previous studies had found subjects who asked to look at anxiety-inducing images of pollution before completing an unrelated task were more likely to cheat than other participants.

Deputy Assistant Dean Christine O’Neil handles LSA judiciary cases. While intrigued by the recent findings on pollution, she is already very familiar with the correlation between air quality and cheating.

“With the connection between pollution and anxiety, I don't find it surprising that individuals in this study were more likely to cheat if exposed to pictures of pollution,” she wrote in an email. “We see many cases where the student didn't set out to engage in academic misconduct but did so due to anxiety in the moment. While we have little control over pollution in the area, there are ways we can try to mitigate anxiety with students in order to reduce instances of academic misconduct.”