Morality and competition in science

 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

How does competition influence moral behavior? Studies have so far found evidence for both a negative and a positive influence of competition on moral behavior. Researchers from Innsbruck, Vienna, Stockholm, and Amsterdam are using this unanswered question to conduct a meta-study that examines the extent to which different study designs can account for variability in scientific outcomes. The study was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Do markets, as already argued by Adam Smith, have a civilizing effect and thus make market participants more moral? Or are thought leaders such as Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen closer to the truth, and is moral behavior subordinated to profit interests in market economies? The question of the influence of competition on morality can be traced back to the beginning of modern social science research, but a clear answer is still missing: There are empirical studies that find a positive effect of competition on moral behavior as well as those that show the opposite. Researchers led by Felix Holzmeister, Michael Kirchler and Jürgen Huber from the University of Innsbruck, together with colleagues from Vienna, Stockholm and Amsterdam, used this open question as the starting point for a meta-study recently published in PNAS: "We wanted to use this question to investigate how great the variability of experimental research results can be when the same question is addressed with different study designs," explains Felix Holzmeister from the Institute of Economic Theory, Policy and History at the University of Innsbruck, co-author of the study.

45 Study designs

Typically, experimental studies are conducted with only one study design; researchers:in decide how morality and competition should be represented in an experiment. "It seems obvious that the study design directly determines the outcome of a study, as does the sample of respondents and the method of analysis. However, the extent to which the study design actually influences the outcome is largely unclear to date due to a lack of empirical evidence," Holzmeister says. In order to investigate the effect of study design on study results, the researchers launched a call to colleagues to submit study designs on the deliberately open question of the influence of competition on moral behavior - in the end, they ended up with 45 different experiments, submitted by 88 researchers from 75 different institutions in 18 countries. In order to largely exclude other effects, the subjects were recruited from the same pool of participants and the data from the 45 individual study designs were analyzed using the same statistical tests. In total, more than 18,000 people participated in one of the 45 studies via an online portal.

A meta-analysis of the 45 individual study results suggests a weak negative effect of competition on moral behavior. However, the variability in the results is substantial: while many of the studies yield insignificant results, seven studies suggest a significant negative effect, and two studies suggest a significant positive effect. "The answer to the question of the influence of competition on moral behavior thus depends crucially on which study design is chosen," explains Felix Holzmeister.

Unobserved uncertainty

Each of the 45 experiments could potentially have been conducted and published as an independent scientific study. Accordingly, drawing conclusions from a single result - based on a single study design - to a generalized statement involves considerable pitfalls. Uncertainty about whether an alternative study design would have led to the same conclusion has so far mostly gone unaddressed. "The fact that the effects vary so much between different study designs shows that researchers should be cautious about drawing generalized conclusions from a single study design," says Christoph Huber of the Institute for Markets and Strategy at WU Vienna, one of the study’s co-authors. The Innsbruck authors’ approach shows a possible way out of this dilemma: Instead of many independent studies, the "team science" approach allows researchers:in to conduct much larger data collections in which different defensible study designs are systematically implemented to draw generalizable conclusions. In this way, uncertainty due to variability in results from different study designs can not only be measured, but also specifically used to accelerate the scientific knowledge process.

The raw data of the study are available online:

Publication (online from Friday, June 2, 2023):

Huber, Dreber, Huber, Johannesson, Kirchler, Weitzel, ..., Holzmeister: Competition and moral behavior: A meta-analysis of forty-five crowd-sourced experimental designs, PNAS 2023, Vol. 120, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2215572120,­2215572120