Why Even Good People Act Unethically

The 21st century didn’t start particularly well when it comes to ethics. Many prominent figures in business and politics across the globe act visibly unethically, bend the truth to their needs, or ignore it completely. We all watch them, applaud, and in case of politicians, elect them to their offices also next time. No one holds anyone accountable. In the corporate world, those with dubious ethics are often promoted to higher positions. Does it mean that everyone in our society is corrupt and unethical? Are you?

Faulty memory

What is the explanation of why so many of us are willing to tolerate and even participate in unethical behavior? Francesca Gino and Maryam Kouchaki researched the topic to find out why even honest people engage in unethical behavior and found out that part of the problem is our faulty memory.

When we breach our moral standards, we create a negative and unpleasant memory that threatens our self-image. This is a problem that our brain wants to remedy. We then try various strategies on how to repair our self-image, and that includes forgetting the memory of our wrongdoing. We don’t have the same problem with remembering the misbehaviors of others. This then leads us to believe that we are more ethical than those around us.

Gino and Kouchaki call this phenomenon unethical amnesia. They found evidence of it across numerous studies when comparing memories of past events with recorded reality. For example, people who behaved ethically were more likely to remember the event correctly, while those who acted unethically didn’t remember the past event that well, even if it happened only a couple of days ago.

People who behave unethically, cheat, or lie, have less clear and fewer detail memories of their actions than those who act honestly. The unethical amnesia then drove more unethical behavior in the future. If you don’t remember your past misdeeds, you can afford this one exception of cheating as overall, you are still an honest person. Your self-image won’t suffer that much. With repeated infractions, we also get more comfortable with the dissonance between what we believe and what we are doing, so we are more likely to keep behaving dishonestly.

Self-control and dishonesty

There is another thing working against us to have our moral radar aligned with the North. Our crazy, fast-paced lives. Nicole L. Mead, Roy F. Baumeister, Francesca Gino, Maurice E. Schweitzer, and Dan Ariely have decided to test the impact of tiredness on honesty. The basic premise was that the opportunity to profit from dishonesty and unethical behavior creates a conflict between the desire to act with integrity in a socially acceptable manner and the potential profit made by cheating. Which part of our personality wins depends among other things also on our self-control.

The more self-control we exhibit, the more likely we beat selfish, antisocial desires. It is then no surprise that the more depleted our self-control energy is, the more likely we are to act dishonestly.

That is in itself pretty troubling as it means that more exhausted you are, the easiest it is for you to cheat and lie. What is even more troubling is that when your self-control is depleted, you are also more likely to expose yourself to situations that may lead you to unethical behavior. So you get to a place where you have more opportunities to cheat, and you are more likely to succumb to them.

Self-control is the key to well-functioning society. Without it, we would lead with selfish behavior and wouldn’t be able to build and real social bonds. Honesty and the ability to sacrifice selfish gains for the benefit of the group is the key. The capacity for self-control can be depleted if we are put to situations where we need to rely on it too much.

Just imagine you are someone who loves chocolate and is asked to work in a chocolate factory and not be allowed to taste it. You can smell the sweetness and you can see the beautiful small treats all around you the whole day. Your self-control is strained to its limits. No wonder that before you head home at the end of the shift, you are too exhausted to resist, and you take a piece of chocolate justifying it to yourself that because of all your hard work, you deserve it. For the record, that is unethical.

A slippery slope of moral disengagement

When you look at the world of big corporations, you can see a pattern. Many of the big scandals rooted in unethical behavior grew over time. They started as small infractions of those involved and ended up in corporate disasters.

Behavioral ethics researchers performed a study to examine whether individuals engage in a slippery slope of increasingly unethical behavior rather than in an abrupt change. They found out that it is indeed the case.

The slippery slope effect increases unethical behavior and is closely related to the mechanism of moral disengagement. Moral disengagement is a form of self-deception that helps individuals to justify their unethical behavior without feeling bad about it. Individuals rationalize unethical conduct, dehumanize victims and minimize personal responsibility. For example, employees may rationalize that it is fine to take home office supplies as the company is very wealthy anyway and won’t miss them.

Moral disengagement leads to an inability to see any wrongdoing by justifying the unethicality. If a person believes that he or she doesn’t act unethically, there is nothing to correct, and there is a higher chance of repeated behavior in the future. Small indiscretions may then quickly snowball into more significant ethical violations down the road.

The same happens when we look at the behavior of others. If someone suddenly acts extremely unethically, we are likely to address it. If the same person gradually becomes more and more unethical, we see this more as a norm and are more likely to tolerate, or even completely ignore such behavior.

It is vital to catch and address even small infractions before they snowball. It is also important to let others on the team see that even minor ethical lapses are being called out and not tolerated. This leads to everyone accepting the rules and behaving more ethically and not trying to rationalize their unethical behavior. It acts both as a punishment as well as prevention.

Even small ethical reminders can have a positive effect. Just by making the ethical standards clear and by visibly dealing with any violations, you can create a culture that will be significantly more ethical.

Loyalty and ethics

Lastly, there is a problem with loyalty. Loyalty to our in-group is deeply rooted in our evolution. Most of the history, being part of a bigger group, was a means of survival. We are loyal to our tribe, family, friends, or organization. Loyalty to a group is an integral part of our social identity, of who we are.

John Angus D. Hildreth, Francesca Gino, and Max Bazerman performed several studies to find out how loyalty to a group impacts ethical behavior. When you are loyal, does it increase or decrease the chances of you behaving unethically? As it turns out, both.

Loyalty can become a driver for unethical behavior in situations where the focus is put on the external competition. It is our tribe against a different tribe. Then the more loyal the member of a given tribe, the more likely they will cheat to win over the opposition. Loyalty promotes unethical behavior as not only people work for their own benefit but also the benefit of their in-group.

Loyalty can also become a driver for ethical behavior in situations where the important aspects of loyalty like honesty, integrity, or honor, and emphasized. In such an environment, even if the cheating would benefit the group in some way, the more loyal the member, the less they will cheat. The thinking is that people will behave ethically and with honor, as that is who we as a group are. Loyalty is important to us and we won’t break it by cheating.

So whether loyalty is of a benefit or not in an effort of building an ethical organization ultimately rests with the goals we set. If you promote cutthroat competition against other groups, loyalty will lead to unethical behavior. If you emphasize honesty and doing things right, higher loyalty will lead to more ethical behavior.

What you can do

All is not lost. Even though it would seem nature and human psychology don’t make it easy for us to act ethically, there is still hope.

David De Cremer, a professor in management and organizations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore, talks about six traits that predict ethical behavior.

According to De Cremer, conscientiousness and moral attentiveness are the keys. You can hardly take action on unethical behavior when you don’t recognize it. Moral attentiveness is the prerequisite for building an ethical environment. Conscientiousness is a trait exhibited by responsible company citizens, careful, reflective, and reliable people. They care about what’s going on around them and are more likely to take action when they see unethical behavior.

Sense of duty and customer orientation are the behaviors that also indicate that the person will act the right way in the face of ethical dilemmas. A sense of duty is tied to loyalty and leads to protective behavior if the object of protection, team or organization, is being attacked by an unethical individual. Customer orientation is obvious as employees who exhibit this behavior care and see their mission to help and create harmonious relationships with customers as well as within any other social group.

To take action, assertiveness and proactivity are needed. Assertive people are willing to stand up and address the issue even when everyone else pretends it doesn’t exist. They will resist the peer pressure to conform and are willing to take the risk and speak up. Proactivity plays a similar role. Those who exhibit this behavior are less likely to wait and instead take action.

Don’t get seduced by the dark side of unethical behavior. It is up to you to stand up and lead by example. Know yourself, reflect on your actions, be attentive to your surroundings, and speak up when faced with unethical behavior. Prove that ethical behavior still has its place in the 21st century.


What are your thoughts on the topic? How big role ethics play in your life? Do you have a moral code that is important to you? Do you believe that conversation about ethics has place in 21st century?

Photo: sajinka2 / Pixabay.com

Categories: Career, Life

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1 reply

  1. Thank you for writing this, it has been very helpful

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