Organizational psychologists have been studying workplace deviance, that is, intentionally causing harm to an organization or workplace, since the 20th century. Employee deviance and time theft is an expensive and widespread workplace problem, costing businesses billions of dollars each year. Discontent employees admit to napping on the job, checking social media, watching Netflix, shopping online and stealing from their employer.
It has long been theorized by organizational psychologists that such ‘negative workplace behaviors’ stem from a ‘psychological breach of contract’, or breaking of promises that employees feel their bosses are obligated to fulfill. When these contracts are breached, the employees aim to psychologically ‘even the score’ with their employers by engaging in deviant behavior.
This explanation is supported by what is called the ‘Conservation of Resources’ or COR theory. This theory states that we strive to obtain and protect the things (or resources) we value, and that whenever our resources are threatened, we react in aggressive and defensive ways. Unhappy employees often feel like their resources are being lost and thus go into a state of duress, leading to deviant behavior.
This phenomenon had previously only been studied through self-report questionnaires, but a recent study by Tabor, Griep, Collins, and Mychasiuk put it to the test. Their study tried to observe the effects of broken promises on the behavior of rats. The experiment began by placing 16 rats in separate boxes, which had 3 holes in them. In the first phase, the researchers randomly illuminated one of the holes, and if the rat poked the hole with its nose, it would get a food pellet. This continued till the rat (upon seeing the light) would almost immediately nose-poke it to receive a pellet.
Once the rats had learned this behavior, the next phase began. In this phase, the rats were divided into two groups: one, who still got a pellet when they poked the button, and the other, who did not, that is, the reward they expected was not being fulfilled. It was seen that the rats of the Broken Promise group had increased levels of testosterone and corticosterone (a stress hormone) and low levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that contributes to well-being and happiness).
These rats were then put into each end of a “dominance tube” which essentially is a tube that is too narrow for a rat to turn around. It was observed that the rats who were a part of the Broken Promise group, were much more aggressive in the tube, and pushed the other rat out. The rats were also placed in an open field paradigm, to see how far they would go to explore, to assess their risk-taking level. As expected, the Broken Promise group traveled further into the field than the Kept Promise group, thus showing more risk-taking behavior.
The study thus tested what had previously only been theorized: When an expected promise is broken, it leads to more aggression, risk-taking and anti-social behavior. This research indicates how the perception of injustice is seen by employees as a psychological contract breach, thus leading them to experience psychological stress and reduced motivation. The combination of feelings from this new emotional states pushes them to engage in riskier and more aggressive behavior.
This study has given us tremendous insight into one of the most pervasive problems faced in the workplace. So the next time you catch yourself at your desk looking for sunglasses on Amazon, or notice Joan from Accounting putting yet another office stapler in her bag, you’ll know which 16 rats to thank.