Managers would be well advised to choose their words carefully according to new research. Academics have discovered that careful use of language can make the world of difference in the workplace and may well encourage employees to behave more ethically.

The research has found that linguistic subtleties, such as describing an individual as a cheater, rather than terming their behaviour as cheating had a marked impact on how that individual would behave.

“This research is exciting because it suggests that a very simple way leaders might curb unethical behaviour is with subtle linguistic cues that highlight the implications that the behaviour might have for a person’s identity,” says Gabrielle Adams an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School.

With fellow academics Christopher Bryan an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of California San Diego and Benoît Monin, an associate professor of organisational behaviour and psychology at Stanford University, Prof Adams. conducted experiments in which participants had the opportunity to claim money that they were not entitled to.

However while some participants received instructions that highlighted the individual’s identity – “Please don’t be a cheater” others were given instructions that focused on the action – “Please don’t cheat”.

Where the language focused on identity – the cheater– participants were far less likely to cheat. But when the behaviour was described – cheating – the academics found that individuals were more prone to take the money. The results held true for both face-to-face interaction and in an online setting.

The academics suggest that it is possible to invoke an individual’s “desire to maintain a self-image as good and honest” by manipulating language and using self-relevant nouns such as cheater. Self-relevant nouns they add “should cause people to avoid the behaviour”.

The writers say that subtle linguistic cues can prevent dishonesty “by harnessing people’s desire to maintain a view of themselves as ethical and honest”. In turn they add that their research suggests that simple linguistic interventions could help curb dishonest behaviour in society.

When cheating would make you a cheater: implicating the self prevents unethical behaviour will be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

● Academic research is all embracing and the stock market and stock returns have recently come under scrutiny.

But according to new research which examines stock market strategies relating to stock returns, the very act of publishing the academic work can affect the stock return predictability, correcting the market mispricing that made the strategy profitable in the first place. In other words the strength of an academic’s findings relating to stock market returns decreases once their paper is published.

David McLean, of the University of Alberta and a visiting professor at MIT Sloan School of Management says that when academics publish a paper analysing a new market strategy, savvy investors immediately begin to trade on that strategy.

“This trading impacts prices, bringing them more in line with fundamental values. This in turn makes the strategy less profitable, so it appears that academic research destroys stock return predictability,” say the writers in their paper “Does Academic Research Destroy Stock Return Predictability”.

With Jeffrey Pontiff of Boston College, Prof McLean identified strategies that have been shown to predict stock returns that had been published in finance, accounting and economics journals. They found that once the paper had been published the strategy’s return deteriorated by 35 per cent.

However the writers say that there is a silver lining. “Our study suggests that academic research makes markets work better, as the apparent market mispricing is at least partially corrected once a study has drawn attention to it.”

The paper is published online on the Social Science Research Network

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article