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Ethics, those systems of moral principles that dictate individual or group behavior, are the squishiest. When it's convenient to be upstanding and forthright, most of us can do Kant proud. But, when upholding the categorical imperative means we don't get to live, eat, snag a subway seat or have sex right now, we often choose "us-doing-us" over doing right.

It's easy to find evidence of humans as fairweather ethicists. Consider a new study suggesting that people in unpleasant "visceral states" (hungry, thirsty, tired, over-heated) are more likely to cheat or lie to get their hands on something that will alleviate their specific discomfort (food, water, coffee, a chillow) than those who feel groovy. A Cornell University-lead research team is calling it the "Valjean Effect," named after the "Les Miserables" character Jean Valjean, who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece. They published their findings this month in the journal Emotion.

For the study, researchers ran three experiments in which people with different levels of hunger and thirst could stretch the truth to obtain prizes in the form of snacks and water. Their prediction? Empty-bellied and parched participants would go ahead and stretch that truth to get those prizes. Based on previous psych studies, two general findings about ethical behavior supported their prediction.

First, we humans are prone to interpreting the truth in ways that benefit us. So, if a company only gives rockstar-level employees year-end bonuses, and employees get to determine whether or not they fit the rockstar bill, then it's a good bet that most employees will call themselves Hendrix. And we take these sorts of interpretive liberties while still considering ourselves beacons of honesty. 

If we're hungry, we might suspend our quest for Kate Hudson's Fabletic abs and hoover Cinnabons. If we're tired, we might ignore our goal of career domination and sleep through a meeting or three.

Second, research has shown that visceral states can have a powerful impact on mental processes, affecting our preferences, memories and even perceptions of objects around us. People who feel hungry, for example, might see a hot dog cart and mistakenly believe the rotating weiners to be closer than they really are. When we need to fulfill some visceral need, we descend into what's been called a "motivational myopia," meaning a "focus on the goal of alleviating the visceral state at the expense of other important goals." If we're hungry, we might suspend our quest for Kate Hudson's Fabletic abs and hoover Cinnabons. If we're tired, we might ignore our goal of career domination and sleep through a meeting or three. 

Taken together, our loose attachment to honesty and vulnerability to seeing the world through biased lenses suggests that Valjean-ing should come easy.

"These are states that people feel to a certain degree every day," said study co-author Elanor Williams, a researcher at UC San Diego, "so this paper raises the question of how frequently people make small ethical lapses because their needs blind them to their standards. Think of all the stolen office lunches this might help explain, for example."

Most research on visceral-state ethics has explored how people judge moral behavior differently depending on their visceral state. In this case, researchers sought to explore how people's own moral behavior might change. So, they made guinea pigs out of loitering college kids.

For the first experiment, researchers rounded up students at a Cornell dining hall. The students (believing they were participating in a marketing study) rated their levels of hunger, among other visceral states, and estimated how long it had been since they last ate. Researchers showed them a snackpack containing assorted types of junkfood (arranged attractively, natch) and gave all the students opaque containers contining six-sided dice (one die each). They explained that there weren't enough snackpacks for everyone, but that anyone who rolled an even number would get one. Researchers made a point not to monitor their dice-rolling, so students could easily cheat without getting caught. Perhaps unsurprisingly, more people claimed to have rolled even numbers than was statistically likely. And, researchers found, hungrier students were more likely to get the lucky 2,4 or 6 that won them chips and snickers. 

People in unpleasant "visceral states" (hungry, thirsty, tired, over-heated) are more likely to cheat or lie to get their hands on something that will alleviate their specific discomfort (food, water, coffee, a chillow) than those who feel groovy.

Next, researchers headed to the campus gym and recruited a mix of students on their way out (and presumably thirsty from working out) as well as on their way in (and presumably not as parched). This time, the prize was a bottle of Fuji water and the game was even more conducive to cheating: Students had to think of numbers from 1 to 10 but didn't have to reveal their numbers. Anyone who settled on an even number got water. The outcome was similar to that of the first experiment. Students who were leaving the gym (who tended to report being much thirstier than the pre-workout crowd) said they thought of even numbers twice as often as less-thirsty participants did. (Probability studies show that people are generally more likely to pick odd numbers over even numbers, so they repeated the experiment with odd winning numbers and saw similar results.)

Then, they re-ran a slightly tweaked version of the gym experiment (using different students). This time, only half the students were competing to win Fuji water. For the other half, the prize was a pen. Here, the idea was that students who'd worked out would be more likely to report winning numbers when water was at stake. And that's what happened — post-exercise students were actually less likely than the pre-exercise group to claim winning numbers when they'd get pens. This suggested to researchers that people in unpleasant visceral states are only more likely to cheat when doing so remedies the issue at hand. In other words, pens don't quench thirst. 

But, across all three experiments, one trend surprised researchers: The perceived economic value of the prizes didn't seem to affect students' behavior. In the snackpack experiment, students indicated whether they'd choose the snackpack over different amounts of money, ranging from 50 cents to five dollars. It turned out that students' preference for snacks vs. money didn't predict their likelihood of rolling winning numbers. And, in the gym experiment, sudents had to attach monetary value to the fuji water. Researchers expected thirstier students to put a higher price on the water. "It wouldn’t have shocked me if people were willing to pay more when they are feeling an intense visceral state," said Williams. But that wasn't the case. 

In this study, researchers specifically looked at hunger and thirst, but Williams said it wouldn't surprise her if fatigue produced similar results. "It has a lot of the same properties as hunger and thirst — it makes you irritable, lowers inhibitions, draws focus, etc."

While visceral states are powerful, study authors wrote that research suggests they're also possible to overcome. Future work on the Valjean Effect might explore how to encourage would-be Valjeans to act ethically when they're itching to break rules. After all, things went downhill for prisoner 2-4-6-0-1. But we'd still argue he was justified in stealing that baguette. Come at me, Javert.
 
This post has been updated.