How moral symbols increased customer food payments by $1.83

Intervention · Employment and Work Performance


Noticing that people can behave poorly in work environments (e.g. overbilling customers), organizational behavior expert Dr. Sreedhari Desai researched how behavioral nudges could increase ethical behavior.1 Through physical design, Desai studied how displaying moral symbols could reduce unethical behavior, where traditional methods like positive reinforcement and behavior monitoring failed. The goal was to address unethical behavior between consumers and retailers, and between employees and supervisors.

For instance, by implementing portraits of moral leaders at One World Cafe, Desai found that customers voluntarily paid an average of $1.83 USD more per plate of food.1 Intrigued by the influence of moral symbols, Desai conducted a lab experiment and found that those who were exposed to moral symbols (i.e. portraits of ethical figures in history) were significantly less likely to impose unethical demands upon subordinates. Desai also found that, outside the lab setting, supervisors exposed to moral symbols were less likely to request unethical actions from their employees.


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Rating = 3/5 (Observed in lab and field; published findings lacked information)

How moral symbols led consumers to pay more and supervisors to make less unethical requests
  • Consumers gave minimal payment for food
  • 9% of employees report pressure from their supervisor to fulfill unethical requests
After photos of morally-famous figures were placed in the cafe
  • 1.83 increase in average food payment
  • 14% decrease in supervisor requests to deliver misleading messages

Key Concepts

Ethics: Dealing with the principles of morality, i.e., principles of how we should treat each other. 

Altruism: Altruism is the practice of doing things because we are concerned with the wellbeing of others. It is the opposite of egoism, the practice of doing things solely for our own wellbeing. 

Moral symbols: Symbols that are strongly associated with moral concepts in people’s minds.

Nudges: Techniques to change people’s behaviors in predictable ways without forbidding any options or significantly changing economic incentives.

The Problem

Unethical behavior in the workplace

Many behave unethically in work settings. Contractors overbill unsuspecting consumers, supervisors request employees to behave unethically, and so on.1 This is because we are “boundedly ethical:” our choice to behave ethically is constrained by self-interest. Dr. Sreedhari Desai, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina, wanted to investigate ways to improve ethical behavior in workplaces. Since traditional methods such as monitoring and positive reinforcement have failed to reduce unethical acts in the workplace, Dr. Desai sought to employ a behavioral approach.1 Recognizing the discrepancy between research and real-world application, Desai researched how small behavioral nudges could increase ethical behavior.


Moral symbols in One World Cafe

One World Cafe in Salt Lake City, Utah is unique in that customers anonymously choose to pay as much or as little as they want for their food. Unfortunately, some customers were leaving inadequate payments. To test the effectiveness of moral symbols (e.g., portraits of Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.) Dr. Desai measured average payment before and after these symbols were placed throughout One World Cafe.

Virtual games in the lab

The observations from the cafe gave Desai a good foundation for the influence of moral symbols, but she wanted to see if it could extend to the workplace.1 Could moral symbols reduce the likelihood of a boss asking employees to do something unethical? Desai carried out a lab experiment. The variable of interest (the independent variable) was the presence or absence of moral symbols. The dependent variable was the number of unethical actions a participant engaged in. 

Participants played a virtual game in which they were paired with two “subordinates,” presented as avatars on the computer.1 Some avatars had moral symbols in their pictures: a t-shirt with “” written on it for the morality condition, or a t-shirt with “” written on it for the control condition. The avatars also sent emails to the participants with quotes at the bottom: “success without honor is worse than fraud” for the morality condition, or “success and luck go hand in hand” for the control condition. Desai sought to figure out whether supervisors in the morality condition would make fewer unethical requests compared to the control condition. 

The 4E framework

Desai’s use of moral symbols to nudge ethical behavior exemplifies the 4E framework, which focuses on interventions that encourage behaviors through enabling, encouraging, engaging, or exemplifying said behaviors.2

  • Enable: Customers of One World Cafe and experiment participants had access to services that allowed ethical behavior. Customers of the cafe could choose how much they wanted to pay and participants’ demands were assessed for their ethicality, especially as they were directed to those that they were informed were subordinates.
  • Encourage: Customers and participants were presented with information on morality. Customers of the cafe were subtly prompted through viewing images of people with notable morals, while participants were exposed to information directly relating to morality (i.e.
  • Engage: Customers and participants engaged in moral decision making. Choosing how much to pay for a plate of food was built into the social norms of the cafe; imposing demands upon subordinates was a requirement of the experiment.
  • Exemplify: Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of using moral symbols, customers and participants alike were provided with role models that exemplified moral behavior.

Results and Application

The presence of moral symbols can make us more generous

The results of Desai’s observations in the One World Cafe and her lab experiment suggest that the presence of moral symbols can nudge people to behave more generously.1 According to Desai, these symbols nudge ethical behavior. Customers at One World Cafe, on average, paid $1.83 more for their meal; supervisors made fewer unethical requests.1

Real life example: The presence of religious icons in cubicles

Recall that Desai’s research goal was to determine ways to increase ethical behavior in real-world work environments.1 Taking her findings one step further, Desai conducted a survey with supervisor-subordinate pairs in India. The supervisors were asked whether their subordinates displayed religious icons in their cubicles, and the subordinates were asked whether their supervisors asked them to do unethical things (i.e. lie to clients). 

Survey results showed that those who displayed religious symbols in their cubicles were significantly less likely to be asked to do something unethical.1 Desai believes that the influence of religious symbols confirms that moral symbols can nudge ethical behavior in workplaces. 

Retail & Consumer Employing moral symbols might help protect both consumers and retailers from unethical practices, such as shoplifting.
Public Policy Requiring that certain institutions make use of moral symbols, such as statues or portraits, might nudge individuals and employees towards public good. 
Development and Social Protection The use of moral symbols could help members of traditionally marginalized groups protect themselves from unethical requests or conscious discrimination in the workplace. 


  • The intervention’s participants were diverse, and it helped protect underserved groups from certain forms of discrimination.
  • It is unclear whether data was gathered in a manner that respected participant privacy or consent.
  • It is unclear how effective the intervention is at handling structural issues.

Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?
Servers were voluntarily paid more
Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?
Insufficient Information
The paper does not include how the data was collected, so it is unknown whether it respected privacy
Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?
Room for Improvement
While there are quantitative measures for effectiveness (e.g., amount paid), there are no reported measures for safety or validity

Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?
Insufficient Information
The paper does not include how the data was collected, so it is unknown whether it was consensual
Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?
Room for Improvement
While participants were not forced into making any set of particular choices, it is unclear if they were consulted on what they thought was “ethical” before being nudged into certain actions
Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?
Not Applicable
The number of choices stayed the same

Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?
Room for Improvement
While there is some discussion of how this intervention might help women (e.g., female servers are more likely to be underpaid), there is no discussion of any potential omissions or downsides
Are the participants diverse?
The participant set was diverse, covering multiple countries and continents, workplaces, and environments
Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?
Room for Improvement
While the intervention prevents some forms of inequitable discrimination (e.g., unfair prices based on stereotypes), it is unclear how it handles more structural issues

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The “social dilemma” dilemma

Dr. Sreedhari Desai researched the use of moral symbols to nudge ethical behavior in workplaces, but what about ethical behavior as it pertains to the design of technological applications? From streaming services to social media sites, behavioral scientist Preeti Kotamarthi addresses how we can streamline ethical technological design.


  1. Nudge people to encourage ethical behavior. (2016, August 3). re:Work.
  2. Flanagan, A. E., & Tanner, J. C. (2016). A framework for evaluating behavior change in international development operations (IEG Working Paper 2016/No. 2). Independent Evaluation Group.
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