Polluted morality: Air pollution predicts criminal activity and unethical behavior

By: Julia Lee Cunningham, Jackson G. Lu, Francesca Gino, Adam D. Galinsky


Air pollution is a serious problem that influences billions of people globally. Although the health and environmental costs of air pollution are well known, the present research investigates its ethical costs. We propose that air pollution can increase criminal and unethical behavior by increasing anxiety. Analysis of a 9-year panel of 9,360 U.S. cities found that air pollution predicted six different categories of crime; these analyses accounted for a comprehensive set of control variables (e.g., city and year fixed effects, population, law enforcement) and survived various robustness checks (e.g., non-parametric bootstrapped standard errors, balanced panel). Three subsequent experiments involving American and Indian participants established the causal effect of psychologically experiencing a polluted vs. clean environment on unethical behavior. Consistent with our theoretical perspective, anxiety mediated this effect. Air pollution not only corrupts people’s physical health, but can also contaminate their morality.