To Stop Bad Behavior, Display a Virtuous Quote


Who thought it could be this easy. If you don’t want someone to ask you do something unethical, all you need to do is include a quote about integrity in your email signature.

Sreedhari Desai at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School conducted a series of studies in which subjects were told that they’d earn more money if they got their teammates (who were actually researchers) to unwittingly spread a lie. In their email signatures, some of the “teammates” included a quote about integrity (“Success without honor is worse than fraud”), while others used a neutral quote (“Success and luck go hand in hand”) or no quote at all.

If the participant decided to try and spread the lie, they were far less likely to try to involve someone who displayed a virtuous quote than other team members. And when the participants were presented with such a quote, the likelihood that they’d send a deceptive message at all was generally lower. So a virtuous quote not only shielded a teammate from being asked to do a bad thing, but it also seemed to regulate the participants, by making it less likely that they would try to spread the lie in the first place.

Desai believes this idea could be extended into areas, such as environmental causes. For example, if someone were to include quote about the sanctity of nature in his email signature, Desai predicts that the person’s boss would be less likely to ask him to dump chemicals into a river.

In general, Desai believes the findings support that displaying moral symbols (e.g., email signatures) serve as a way to signal to others that you’re a good person and will reduce the chances that you’ll be asked to do bad things.

So I started thinking how this knowledge could be extended to situations other than ethical dilemmas. Could you start including quotes in your email signature that offer a clear signal of any type of behavios you do not want to engage in?

Here are some examples I came up with:

  • Have no desire to be part of any committee? Here’s a quote you could use in your email signature:

A committee is a thing which takes a week to do what one good man can do in an hour.

  • Have no desire to do any housework? How about using the following quote:

Nature abhors a vacuum. And so do I.

  • Don’t want your friends or family to even think about borrowing money from you? Here’s a quote for you to use:

It is easier to refuse a friend a loan than to press him for payment.

If you think about it, the possibilities are endless.

My only concern is that given all the things I would prefer not to do, my email signature could easily run a few thousand words. My guess at some point, such a signature would lose its effectiveness.

So I think I might start small.

Does anyone have a good quote that will stop students from asking me for extra credit?


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