Study: city air pollution makes people behave less ethically

From the ASSOCIATION FOR PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE and the “air with either alter your personality, or make you unethical, or both” department comes this inane piece of research that just doesn’t pass the sniff test. They showed people photos of polluted city scenes and non-polluted city scenes and then gauged their “ethical response”. Obviously this explains the crime rate in Chicago and New York City, oh, wait…

Source: Washington Post using National Archive of Criminal Justice Data
Source: Biofusion using EPA data

I have only one word for this study: FUBAR

Polluted air may pollute our morality

Exposure to air pollution, even imagining exposure to air pollution, may lead to unethical behavior, according to findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. A combination of archival and experimental studies indicates that exposure to air pollution, either physically or mentally, is linked with unethical behavior such as crime and cheating. The experimental findings suggest that this association may be due, at least in part, to increased anxiety.

“This research reveals that air pollution may have potential ethical costs that go beyond its well-known toll on health and the environment,” says behavioral scientist Jackson G. Lu of Columbia Business School, the first author of the research. “This is important because air pollution is a serious global issue that affects billions of people–even in the United States, about 142 million people still reside in counties with dangerously polluted air.”

Previous studies have indicated that exposure to air pollution elevates individuals’ feelings of anxiety. Anxiety is known to correlate with a range of unethical behaviors. Lu and colleagues hypothesized that pollution may ultimately increase criminal activity and unethical behavior by increasing anxiety.

In one study, the researchers examined air pollution and crime data for 9,360 US cities collected over a 9-year period. The air pollution data, maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency, included information about six major pollutants, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. The crime data, maintained by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, included information about offenses in seven major categories, including murder, aggravated assault, and robbery.

The researchers found that cities with higher levels of air pollution also tended to have higher levels of crime. This association held even after the researchers accounted for other potential factors, including total population, number of law enforcement employees, median age, gender distribution, race distribution, poverty rate, unemployment rate, unobserved heterogeneity among cities (e.g., city area, legal system), and unobserved time-varying effects (e.g., macroeconomic conditions).

To establish a direct, causal link between the experience of air pollution and unethical behavior, the researchers also conducted a series of experiments. Because they could not randomly assign participants to physically experience different levels of air pollution, the researchers manipulated whether participants imagined experiencing air pollution.

In one experiment, 256 participants saw a photo featuring either a polluted scene or a clean scene. They imagined living in that location and reflected on how they would feel as they walked around and breathed the air.

Participants assigned to the “polluted” condition saw a collage of photos showing polluted scenes taken in Beijing, China. They saw this collage as they wrote a diary entry describing what it would be like to live in the location depicted. CREDIT ©Jackson G. Lu, Julia J. Lee, Francesca Gino, and Adam D. Galinsky

On a supposedly unrelated task, they saw a set of cue words (e.g., sore, shoulder, sweat) and had to identify another word that was linked with each of the cue words (e.g., cold); each correct answer earned them $0.50. Due to a supposed computer glitch, the correct answer popped up if the participants hovered their mouse over the answer box, which the researchers asked them not to do. Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers recorded how many times the participants peeked at the answer.

The results showed that participants who thought about living in a polluted area cheated more often than did those who thought about living in a clean area.

In two additional experiments, participants saw photos of either polluted or clean scenes taken in the exact same locations in Beijing, and they wrote about what it would be like to live there. Independent coders rated the essays according to how much anxiety the participants expressed.

Participants assigned to the “nonpolluted” condition saw a collage of photos showing nonpolluted scenes taken in Beijing, China. They saw this collage as they wrote a diary entry describing what it would be like to live in the location depicted. CREDIT ©Jackson G. Lu, Julia J. Lee, Francesca Gino, and Adam D. Galinsky

In one of the experiments conducted with university students in the US, the researchers measured how often participants cheated in reporting the outcome of a die roll; in the other experiment with adults in India, they measured participants’ willingness to use unethical negotiation strategies.

Again, participants who wrote about living in a polluted location engaged in more unethical behavior than did those who wrote about living in a clean location; they also expressed more anxiety in their writing. As the researchers hypothesized, anxiety level mediated the link between imagining exposure to air pollution and unethical behavior.

Together, the archival and experimental findings suggest that exposure to air pollution, whether physical or mental, is linked with transgressive behavior through increased levels of anxiety.

Lu and colleagues note that there may be other mechanisms besides anxiety that link air pollution and unethical behavior. They also acknowledge that imagining experiencing air pollution is not equivalent to experiencing actual air pollution. They highlight these limitations as avenues for further research.

Ultimately, the research reveals another pathway through which a person’s surroundings can affect his or her behavior:

“Our findings suggest that air pollution not only corrupts people’s health, but also can contaminate their morality,” Lu concludes.


Co-authors on the research include Julia J. Lee of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School, and Adam D. Galinsky at Columbia Business School.

All materials have been made publicly available via the Open Science Framework. The design and analysis plans for Study 3b were preregistered. The complete Open Practices Disclosure for this article is available online. This article has received badges for Open Materials and Preregistration.

For more information about this study, please contact: Jackson G. Lu at

The article abstract is available online at

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February 8, 2018 8:14 am

I wonder what they were smoking while they were conjuring up this nonsense.

Reply to  pitou69
February 8, 2018 2:15 pm

Obviously the testers knew what the test subject were thinking about when they cheated. And, how exactly would they know that? /facepalm
More likely they just reported what they believed the test subjects were thinking. I suppose the possibility that the subjects were merely thinking about the reward with no repercussion for cheating never occurred to then researchers.
All that this demonstrates is that offering a reward for cheating will entice people to cheat.
This was peer reviewed and approved?

Steve Keohane
February 8, 2018 8:17 am

Living in cities where one can be anonymous is the root of ethical decline. Consider the weekend drunk arriving at the local urban drunk-tank where he is treated impersonally, as opposed to the rural jail wehre he is personally confronted with pejorative accolades of a personal nature. Which incident is more likely to have an effect on personal behavior? This is why social problems cannot be dealt with on a federal level, but only on the most local level possible.

Reply to  Steve Keohane
February 8, 2018 9:01 am


Reply to  beng135
February 8, 2018 12:18 pm

I’m gonna tell yo mama…..

Reply to  beng135
February 8, 2018 2:14 pm

Steve has good point but there are so many uncontrolled variables here, it’s not even funny.
How about the living in more densely populated conditions makes people less “ethical”.
Maybe paying higher rent and having less free time makes people “unethical”.
Maybe those who choose to live in a city have different values to those who choose smaller communities.
Rural populations have different age demographics and older people are more conservative and have more traditional “ethics”.
Larger metropolitan populations tend to be younger, poorer and more left wing.
Maybe it is being young / poor / left wing which correlates not air pollution. I don’t see any controls of many possible confounding variables.
Even what is considered ethical is subjective.
This so-called “study” is so amateurish, you wonder how it even got published, except that it advances a generally lefty, enviro agenda. I guess the journal editors live and work in cities, so it’s not their fault that they act unethically: it’s the PM2.5s what made me do it !!

Reply to  beng135
February 8, 2018 2:18 pm

Bring back the pillories and stocks. Public shaming is very effective.
It could be viewed as form of “community service”. You get to “serve” as a bad example for the community.

Reply to  beng135
February 8, 2018 7:50 pm

Now we know the reason for Libor rigging, these poor folks have to work in polluted cities. It’s not the money, it’s just the air quality that forces them to act unethically.
Oh well at least anyone working for a “systemically important” bank is immune from prosecution even if they openly admit to criminal behaviour.

Reply to  Steve Keohane
February 8, 2018 11:26 am

Living in cities might be able to be correlated with the ethics, but, as we all know, CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION!

Reply to  oeman50
February 8, 2018 2:19 pm

Exactly. That, in a nutshell that is what I just posted above: more uncontrolled variables than a supernova.

Latimer Alder
February 8, 2018 8:17 am

Is it April 1st in USA already?
Still only early February in London, England.

Mumbles McGuirck
Reply to  Latimer Alder
February 8, 2018 9:35 am

“A foggy day in London Town
Had me low and had me down ”
You are obviously suffering from ‘fog anxiety’ and have lost track of the calendar date.

February 8, 2018 8:32 am

… saw a photo featuring either a polluted scene or a clean scene. […] which the researchers asked them not to do. Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers recorded how many times the participants peeked at the answer.

If the researchers who asked them not to peek also knew what scene they had looked at then they may have polluted the study with their own bias in the way they asked them not to peek.

Reply to  TerryS
February 8, 2018 12:22 pm

People that are unethical are more anxious and more inclined to cheat……….next

February 8, 2018 8:32 am

Showing pictures of a Chinese city’s air pollution is a completely invalid example of “typical air pollution” and is not the equvalent of being there. Probably most city scape photos lead non city dwellers to have negative thoughts.

Mumbles McGuirck
Reply to  arthur4563
February 8, 2018 9:39 am

They were pictures of Beijing. Obviously, this study shows that when people imagine themselves living under Communist oppression, they begin to act unethically. QED

Bruce Cobb
February 8, 2018 8:40 am

Remember the “twinkie defense”? Welcome to the “polluted air defense”.

Reply to  Bruce Cobb
February 8, 2018 1:20 pm

“I have only one word for this study: FUBAR”
Plus a planet-load.
Is this how science [sensu lato, obviously] works in 2018, seriously?
Folk should ask for their money back – plus interest at 4% over LIBOR.

February 8, 2018 8:41 am

Useless contribution from people with nothing to offer society trying to justify and protect their privilege.

Reply to  icisil
February 8, 2018 9:29 am

I read your comment right while pondering great meta-data follow-up study on corruption in city/county officials, with correlations on pop density, tax rates, coal, oil, natural gas, gasoline consumption, hatteries… OT1H, there is the stereotype of the corrupt fat rural sheriff. OTOH, there is the repititious experience of corrupt urban city/burough/aldermen/precinct/council/commission… laughing all the way to the banks with layers of defense against ethics board censure, indictment, prosecution.
Might have to break them up into 2, 3, even 5 tiers before analysis…with separate examination of level of transience. Transience is a huge contributor to people trying to scam strangers…straight out of Axelrod’s repeated prisoner dilemma tournaments…and the neighborhood I lived in near the U for a few years. The observation of the sage “people are strange when you’re a stranger” is supported by the criminological analyses I’ve read, and the criminologist scholars in personal conversations.

michael hart
February 8, 2018 8:48 am

It sounds like the oft-discredited “videos and electronic games cause xxx” arguments against porn or violent video games. Seeing a video of something or playing a video game is not the same as experiencing it, or wanting to do it in real life. It is fantasy, and humans are capable of distinguishing between them and acting accordingly.

Reply to  michael hart
February 8, 2018 2:25 pm

Most humans can, but Anthony keeps finding studies and articles conducted and written by people who seem to have difficulty separating the two.

February 8, 2018 8:48 am

city air pollution makes people behave less ethically
Wrongo. That’s the result of the long-running cultural marxism.

Walter Sobchak
Reply to  beng135
February 8, 2018 9:22 am

City air pollution causes Marxism. So there is a causal relation between air pollution and unethical behavior:-)

February 8, 2018 8:56 am

To establish a direct, causal link between the experience of air pollution and unethical behavior, the researchers also conducted a series of experiments. Because they could not randomly assign participants to physically experience different levels of air pollution, the researchers manipulated whether participants imagined experiencing air pollution.
How in the world does imagining air pollution establish a direct causal link between experiencing air pollution and behaving badly?
What we really need to know is: Are press release writers born stupid or are they trained to be that way?

John Smith
February 8, 2018 8:56 am

“Please Your Honor, the Sulfur Dioxide made me do it”

Reply to  John Smith
February 8, 2018 9:31 am

It was the bread bakers! I breathed in and just snapped!

February 8, 2018 8:56 am

I strongly suspect this is another case where they used “advanced” statistical techniques to torture the data until it told them what they wanted to hear.

Joel O'Bryan
February 8, 2018 9:00 am

psychology isn’t science. And science isn’t psychology.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
February 8, 2018 9:34 am

We have a winner. Though several individuals and the schools of approach they led have striven to be scientific, the best they’ve reached is scientificality, which is scientific-sounding manners of soeaking, pseudo-scientific activities, but no scientific method.

NW sage
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
February 8, 2018 6:37 pm

The publication title is an oxymoron – with emphasis on the last 5 letters!

February 8, 2018 9:37 am

OH, I get it! Photoshopping pollution in downtown Beijing is the dishonest way to get people to give honest answers to a survey that was baloney to start with.
Got it! Moving on….

dodgy geezer
February 8, 2018 9:40 am

This is really good for climate activists. They can now add the cost of ALL CRIME down to CO2, and justify windmills…

Andy Pattullo
February 8, 2018 10:04 am

This absolutely meets the usual standards of most psychological research. But then so do the shopping channel and all the product claims.

February 8, 2018 10:35 am

What, no 200 contributing authors on this one? It could be a mass promotion and tenure play in the volume-based incentives mill for publications. The the tenure and accreditation system is working just as expected from a behavioral model standpoint.

February 8, 2018 10:46 am

It is well understood that a great deal of crime is a product of drug prohibition.

Reply to  Sam Grove
February 8, 2018 6:18 pm

No, that is frequently claimed. I have never seen any evidence that it’s true. It isn’t as though you can trust any of the research studies in this area either, since all the reports I’ve read make it clear that the researchers have an axe to grind, which makes their results untrustworthy. See Margaret Meade, “Coming of Age in Samoa”.

February 8, 2018 10:46 am

What are the gang signs for ozone and CO2? Just wondered.

Steve C
February 8, 2018 10:54 am

What makes people behave less ethically is seeing the leaders and opinion formers in their society behaving less ethically and “setting a bad example”. Turpitude, unlike wealth, really does “trickle down”.

February 8, 2018 10:58 am

So this explains Schumer, Pelosi, and Blago?

Reply to  ResourceGuy
February 8, 2018 11:06 am

It might, but then, if it does, then it also explains Trump, since he’s a NYC native.

Joel Snider
Reply to  C. Paul Pierett
February 8, 2018 12:06 pm

And a businessman who’s had to deal with this BS.

Joel Snider
February 8, 2018 12:05 pm

OR it could be the corroding influence of Progressivism.

February 8, 2018 12:24 pm

first impression of the second image (‘The Polluted Polis’) was the counties won by Miss Hillary during the election. Polluted by BS liberalism perhaps?

February 8, 2018 1:33 pm

Ah, yes, that would explain why in China which has some of the most industrially polluted Cities on Earth, you meet, constantly, some of the most ethically correct and politely helpful people on Earth.

February 8, 2018 2:38 pm

This study illustrates why the social sciences are a laughingstock — only a psychologist/social scientist could pretend that “peeking” at answers on a little quiz is related to propensity to commit murder and mayhem — with out without the ridiculous attempt to tie in air pollution.

Hocus Locus
February 8, 2018 2:52 pm

Study: Air pollution makes cat-swingers swing 15% more rounds

February 8, 2018 3:02 pm

Prior to beginning work on this study, the authors spent 2 hours each day for 2 straight weeks, sitting in a running car, in a 2 car garage (with one garage door half open), discussing what study elements would garner the most grant money.
Suggestion for a follow up study “How much pollution does it take to make a Mann, Suzuki, Strozk, or a Comey? It is a linear relationship? Logarithmic? Is there a step function involved somewhere?”

February 8, 2018 3:09 pm

Related Study: “Air Pollution vs. Counties that voted Hillary (and does pollution cause higher incidence of Democrat registrations?)

J Mac
Reply to  DonM
February 8, 2018 3:22 pm

Does smog density correlate with illegal voting?

J Mac
February 8, 2018 3:20 pm

Whoo Boy – When I first read the article title, I thought it said:
“Study: city air pollution makes people behave less ethnically.”
I better get my eyes checked… or have a beer…or both!

February 8, 2018 8:30 pm

I need my support gerbil…

February 8, 2018 9:36 pm

The moment one reads that certain cities have low violent crime rates per 1,000 population, one knows they rigged the game.
While the latest full report covers a previous year; there is a semi-annual preliminary report for January-June 2016-2017:
Here is a sorted violent crimes per 1,000 spreadsheet using downloaded Table 4 data.comment image?dl=0
One can easily spot the big cities or big city districts that have some of the highest violent crime rates in the country.
One can download the entire database for violent crime if one desires; from a prior year’s full database, if one desires. 2016 Table 8, 2015 Table 8
Now, the FBI caution against using their clime databases for rankings.

“Data collection
The data presented in Crime in the United States reflect the Hierarchy Rule, which requires that only the most serious offense in a multiple-offense criminal incident be counted. The descending order of UCR violent crimes are murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, followed by the property crimes of burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. Although arson is also a property crime, the Hierarchy Rule does not apply to the offense of arson. In cases in which an arson occurs in conjunction with another violent or property crime, both the arson and the additional crime are reported.”

How does one rank a solo violent crime, e.g. aggravated assault, against another location’s multiple violent crimes that are only represented by the most serious crime?
PS: I provided links to FBI violent crime statistics for both 2016 and 2015. Why? Because Alaska is not currently represented in 2016’s data. i.e. for those who are curious about the article’s Alaska inset where low population/high violent crime rates caused red highlights…

February 8, 2018 11:56 pm

Did we taxpayers fund this idiocy?

February 9, 2018 7:01 am

How would they explain Washington DC where the air is not so polluted.

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