Our moral standards may weaken when we feel financially strained, according to a new study led by a professor from New York University.

Financial constraints are no excuse for immoral behavior, but when people become, or feel, worse off financially, they loosen their moral standards to redress the perceived unfairness of their situation, according to the study.  

In addition, people who feel financially insecure tend to cheat more for financial gain, and judge other financially insecure people who cheat more leniently than do financially comfortable people. But apparently, this moral hypocrisy diminishes when the immoral conduct is ineffective, when financial deprivation seems fair or deserved and when acting immorally seems unfair.

Although people are generally unaware of their vulnerability to this hypocrisy, the authors’ findings suggest that people may recognize their hypocrisy after behaving immorally themselves.

The study, consisting of one survey and five experiments, was led by Professor Adam Alter of NYU’s Stern business school, and his co-authors, Stern alumnus Eesha Sharma, Dan Ariely of Duke University and Nina Mazar of the University of Toronto.

The journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes will publish an article detailing the study.