Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2014

Dangerous Expectations: Breaking Rules to Resolve Cognitive Dissonance

by Celia Moore, S. Wiley Wakeman and Francesca Gino


When entering task performance contexts we generally have expectations about both the task and how well we will perform on it. When those expectations go unmet, we experience psychological discomfort (cognitive dissonance), which we are then motivated to resolve. Prior research on expectancy disconfirmation in task performance contexts has focused on the dysfunctional consequences of disconfirming low performance expectations (i.e., stereotype threat). In this paper we focus on the dysfunctional consequences of disconfirming high performance expectations. In three studies, we find that individuals are more likely to break rules if they have been led to expect that achieving high levels of performance will be easy rather than difficult, even if breaking rules means behaving unethically. We show that this willingness to break rules is not due to differences in legitimate performance as a function of how easy people expect the task to be, or whether their expectations are set explicitly (by referring to others' performance) or implicitly (as implied by their own prior performance). Instead, using a misattribution paradigm, we show that cognitive dissonance triggered by unmet expectations drives our effects.

Keywords: Rule breaking; Unethical Behavior; Expectancy Disconfirmation; cognitive dissonance; Misattribution; Behavior; Ethics; Cognition and Thinking;


Moore, Celia, S. Wiley Wakeman, and Francesca Gino. "Dangerous Expectations: Breaking Rules to Resolve Cognitive Dissonance." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 15-012, August 2014.