Why Good People Do Bad Things

The news media these days tends to be awash with stories about dishonest or unethical behaviour. We read about companies squeezing their suppliers, advertisers falsifying the facts about a product, CEO’s making off with company funds, or the big money players that triggered our global financial crisis  …  and we shake our heads in dismay and disgust.

We feel so very justified in taking the moral high ground. After all, these people are simply bad people – they’re nothing like us!

But here’s an article that just might give us pause – for a moment,  a few seconds, a heart beat – in our righteous indignation. :)

Entitled Psychology Of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things, it explores that fine line that can exist between ethical and unethical behaviour. And it comes up with some possibly surprising suggestions for why otherwise good people do bad things.

It may seem obvious that folk may do bad things because they want to be liked – and because the specific ‘bad thing’ in question will actually help somebody else, especially someone close to them. But it may be more surprising to learn that if people are thinking a decision is a business decision, they are more likely to lie or behave unethically than if they are thinking about it as a moral decision.  As Ann Tenbrunsel, a researcher at Notre Dame, says “certain cognitive frames make us blind to the fact that we are confronting an ethical problem at all.”

And if you think most of ‘us’ always consider decisions from an ethical perspective even if ‘they’ (the evil-doers in the media) do not, what about the ‘cognitive frames‘ that get wrapped around these:

  • Copying a DVD or music CD to keep or give to someone else?
  • Lying for a friend to provide an alibi or an excuse?
  • Not returning to a shop where they’ve given you too much change for your purchase?
  • Walking away with someone else’s pen – and not returning it when you notice you have it?
  • Photocopying an entire book or article instead of purchasing it?
  • Using a photocopier at work to copy personal documents?
  • Under-reporting income or over-reporting expenses on a tax return?

Ok, so these are definitely not in the same ballpark as those CEO’s defrauding millions of dollers, or the wheeling and dealing dishonesty that led to the GFC.

But in the end, perhaps it’s not so much a question of whether we can say absolutely that we behave ethically or unethically.

Perhaps the main difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is a question of degree.

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