Christian T. Elbæk

Resource scarcity does not make your cheat – on the contrary

Behavioural economics

Christian T. Elbæk's research has shown a positive connection between our experience of resource scarcity and moral decision making. The results of his research may help break down prejudice. 

As a student of behavioural economics, Christian T. Elbæk developed an interest in the borderline territory between economics and psychology. The literature was full of studies on the negative behavioural and cognitive effects of resource scarcity, but scientists have only recently begun to focus on the effect on the moral habitus.

“And here the literature was inconclusive. Therefore, the first thing I did as a PhD student was to conduct a meta-analysis to understand why. It showed that the effect of resource scarcity on morality is not universal, as previously assumed, but depends i.a. on the time frame. In a situation of acute resource scarcity, we are prone to cheat for personal gain, but this is not the case if we find ourselves in a chronic situation of resource scarcity, the literature shows,” Christian T. Elbæk explains.

Subsequently, he conducted three empirical studies to test the results of his meta-analysis. Surprisingly, though, the results pointed in a different direction.

“My research methods were more advanced and robust than those of previous studies, and the results showed that acute resource scarcity does not increase our inclination to cheat,” he says.

Interestingly, his third and most comprehensive study with more than 50,000 respondents from 67 countries suggested that people who find themselves in a situation of chronic resource scarcity appear to attach greater importance to moral principles.

“Using advanced statistical methods, we were able to demonstrate that respondents who consider themselves affected by resource scarcity attach greater importance to moral decision making than people with more resources. This is consistent with previous behavioural research, which suggests that people with few resources are forced to be more attentive to their environment and fellow human beings because they depend on help from others. So our results can help break down destructive stereotypical ideas of people with few resources as unethical,” Christian T. Elbæk concludes.

Christian T. Elbæk continues his research as assistant professor at Aarhus BBS.