NEW YORK — Polluted air doesn’t just affect our physical health, but it can disturb our psychological health too. The findings of a recent study show that exposure to air pollution, or even just the belief that you’ve been exposed to toxic air whether you have or not, can compromise a person’s sense of morality.
Researchers from Columbia University conducted experimental studies and surveys of past data to find indications of air pollution exposure affecting crime and deviant behavior. The results showed a link between pollutants and a person’s likelihood of committing a criminal act or cheating. The authors believe the connection has to do with increased anxiety that people experience in areas with greater levels of pollution.
“Our findings suggest that air pollution not only corrupts people’s health, but also can contaminate their morality,” says first author Jackson G. Lu, a behavioral scientist at Columbia Business School, in a release by the Association for Psychological Science.
Previous research has associated elevated levels of air pollution to heightened anxiety in individuals, which has long been correlated with unethical behaviors.
One study compared crime statistics with air pollution levels of over 9,000 cities in the United States over a period of nine years. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation contributed data to the study. Cities with higher levels of air pollution also had higher levels of crime, especially violent crime, such as robbery, assault, and murder.
In order to show a direct, positive correlation, the researchers gave 256 study participants pictures of a polluted scene or a clean scene. The participants were then asked to imagine themselves living in or inhabiting that space, specifically how it would feel to breathe the air. They were then asked to complete a word association test on a computer in which they were told a “glitch” made the answers available to them if they hovered the mouse over the answer box. What they didn’t realize was the answers were purposefully made available to them.
Researchers specifically asked the individuals not to cheat. Participants earned $0.50 for every correct answer, but were not aware that the researchers could monitor how often they’d take advantage of the glitch.
The results showed participants who imagined themselves inhabiting a more polluted space “cheated” on the test more often.
Another experiment sought to verify the link between anxiety and air pollution. Participants were shown photos from Beijing, with some images depicting notably smoggier scenes and others showing much cleaner views of the same area. The individuals were tasked with writing essays about what they thought it would be like to live there. Later, specialists measured the essays for anxiety. Sure enough, those who imagined themselves living in the cleaner areas displayed lower levels of anxiety in their essays compared to people who wrote about living in polluted areas.
Those same participants also took part in experiments that again gave them the opportunity to cheat in order to win. One experiment involved predicting a die-roll and another involved negotiation strategies. Those who wrote about polluted areas were also more likely to cheat in the die-roll game or use unethical strategies to succeed in their negotiations.
“This research reveals that air pollution may have potential ethical costs that go beyond its well-known toll on health and the environment,” concludes Lu. “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.”
The study was published Feb. 7, 2018 in the journal Psychological Science.