updated 3/1/2010 2:05:15 PM ET 2010-03-01T19:05:15

Dim lights can make it seem as if no one is watching, triggering moral transgressions in many people, a new study suggests.

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Past research has shown that when people are concealed from view by others, say when they are wearing hoods, these individuals will be more likely to commit criminal acts and other bad behaviors.

But what about times when we're not actually anonymous — people can see us — yet we feel like we're hidden? The researchers of the new study describe it as the adult version of hide-and-seek: Kids often believe no one can see them when they cover their eyes even though they are hiding in plain sight. Turns out, a dark room can have a similar psychological effect on adults.

The results could play out in real-life office behavior, the researchers say. "Imagine that a person who is alone in a closed room is deciding whether to lie to a total stranger in an e-mail. Clearly, whether the room is well lit would not affect the person's actual level of anonymity," Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and colleagues write in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Science.

In one experiment, 84 college students were placed in a dimly or well-lit room and were given two envelopes — one containing $10 and the other empty. Participants then had five minutes to complete a test in which they had to pick out two numbers that added up to 10 from each of 20 matrices. For each pair of numbers correctly identified participants could keep $0.50 from their money supply. The catch: Participants scored their own work, and they figured out how much money they got to keep, and transfer to the empty envelope, at the end of the experiment.

They all fared the same on the tests, though participants in the dim room cheated more than their counterparts. While those in the well-lit room reported an average of 7.8 correctly solved matrices, the dim-room students indicated an average of 11.5 correct responses. That resulted in a $1.85 difference in payout.

In another experiment students wore sunglasses or clear glasses while playing a money game in which they had to allocate some portion of $6 to a random stranger. Those wearing shades acted more selfishly, giving significantly less to partners, an average of $1.81, than did those with clear glasses who gave about $2.71 to partners.

Another round of this game with a different group of students showed that participants with sunglasses felt a greater sense of anonymity than those with clear glasses. For instance, the sunglass wearers were more likely to agree on average with statements such as: I was anonymous during the study; my choice went unnoticed during the study. And they were more likely to disagree with: I was watched during the study; and others were paying attention to my behavior during the study.

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