Do Bigger Desks Make People Dishonest? Putting people in that big corner office might not be a business strategy that helps the rest of us

Do Bigger Desks Make People Dishonest?

Putting people in that big corner office might not be a business strategy that helps the rest of us.

We know that people in large corner offices sometimes do bad things. Could the size of the space actually be one cause?

If you’re skeptical about a link between office size and dishonest behavior (and we were), take a look at a new study from Columbia, MIT, Northwestern, Harvard and Berkeley. Across four experiments, it finds that certain expansive environments make people feel more powerful, and that this sense of power can lead to dishonesty. The researchers aren’t saying all people who get big offices go out and rob banks. But they do show environment is relevant, and that might be worth thinking about (for instance, if you’re moving to a new space). In the first test, 81 people were recruited in Boston, and asked to assume either an expansive or contracted pose. Each participant was promised $4, but actually offered $8, in an apparently accidental over-payment. 78% of the expanded-posture volunteers accepted the money, compared to only 38% of the contracted participants.

When our bodily postures are incidentally expanded by these spaces, we could be lured into behaving dishonestly.

Second, 34 students in New York were assigned randomly to large and small desks. The researchers told the participants to unscramble 15 anagrams, then to create a collage from materials placed around where they were sitting (this pushed one group to roam, while the other stayed in place). Then, the volunteers were given the answer key for the anagrams, and told to grade themselves. The big-desk group were more to likely to cheat.

Third, 71 students at Berkeley took part in a driving simulation game (“Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit”), and were offered $10 if they could complete the race in 5 minutes. One group got a big seat, the other a tight one. The researchers wanted to see if there was a difference in how often the volunteers were prepared to hit-and-run to complete the course. The answer was yes: the expansive group was more likely to crash and drive on.

Finally, back in New York, the researchers observed 126 cars in Manhattan, to see if driver seat size had a bearing on how often they were double-parked on busy streets. Sure enough: the larger-seated cars were more likely (71% vs. 51%) to be double-parked.

Expansive postures incidentally shaped by our environment can lead to dishonesty

“Together, these four studies provide multi-method evidence from both lab and field that expansive postures incidentally shaped by our environment can lead to dishonesty,” the paper says.

“Our bodies are perpetually enslaved by the structure of our physical spaces, and the current findings suggest that when our bodily postures are incidentally expanded by these spaces, we could be lured into behaving dishonestly.”

Why? The researchers note that “power poses” may “activate mental concepts and emotional feelings associated with power,” while slumped postures are “associated with learned helplessness and feelings of stress” (which may have the opposite effect).

It’s easy to pick holes in the reasoning. People with big offices are often honest to the core, while people with small offices are sometimes creepy toads. Still, the researchers suggest we give things like office design more “examination and consideration” from an ethical point of view.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: