Why Honest People Do Dishonest Things

Author: Jessica Schmerler


Every day we are bombarded with temptations — to cheat on our diets, to spend instead of save our paychecks, to tell little white lies. It can be exhausting to have to continually remind ourselves that, long-term, we want to be upstanding people, so we shouldn’t make tempting but unethical short-term decisions. But what if simplythinking about dishonesty could make it easier for us to behave ethically? This novel possibility comes from a set of studies published May 22 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which demonstrate that anticipating temptation decreases the likelihood of a person engaging in poor behavior.

In this set of studies, lead researcher Oliver Sheldon, a specialist in organizational behavior at Rutgers University, and co-author Ayelet Fishbach, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, set out to understand the factors that influence self-control in ethical decision-making. The results suggest “a potential solution to curb dishonesty,” according to Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist at Harvard Business School who was not involved in the work.

Sheldon and Fishbach designed three experiments to investigate thoughts that occur to people just before they make an ethical decision. In each, they recorded the behavior of groups of participants during an exercise after the individuals were given different combinations of prompts designed to activate thoughts of either past temptation or social and moral integrity. “We predicted, and found, that such forewarning… helps people better prepare to proactively counteract the influence of impending ethical temptations on their behavior,” Sheldon says.

In the first experiment, 196 business school students were designated as buyers (realtors) or sellers of historical homes, with sellers being told to sell only to buyers who would preserve the homes and buyers being told to conceal the fact their clients would tear down the homes. Before interacting with one another, half the participants in each group were prompted to write about a time they felt tempted to “bend the rules” and the other half were prompted to write about an arbitrary neutral topic, namely a time when having a back-up plan aided in a negotiation. As the buyers were the group that faced an ethical conflict in the interaction, theirs was the behavior under analysis. Of the buyers, 67 percent of those who had not been asked to reflect on unethical behavior lied in order to close the deal, as compared to 45 percent of those who were reminded of temptation.

In the second experiment, 75 college students were told to flip a coin labeled “short” and “long” on either side, to determine whether they had to proofread short or long passages of text. Before the exercise, the students were divided into two groups and given the same writing assignments as in the buyer-seller experiment. The two groups were further divided in half, with one half of each group being told that at their stages of life a person’s values, life goals and personalities are stable; the other half were told that these personal elements can change. By adding this twist to the experiment, the researchers wanted participants to think about how their actions during the exercise could be indicative of their future selves.  Students who both thought about temptation and were told their traits were stable were honest about the outcome of their coin flips, whereas most of the remaining participants lied about the outcome in order to do less work. Clearly, thinking ahead served to prepare people for temptation and make them more honest — provided it was combined with thinking about moral integrity.

In the final experiment, the researchers showed 161 online participants six workplace scenarios in which an employee might be tempted to behave unethically, such as stealing office supplies. Once again, the participants completed one of the same writing assignments used in the previous experiments and then were shown the six scenarios either all at once (suggesting that just one unethical decision would be made, thus the behavior constituted an isolated incident) or on six separate screens (suggesting unethical behavior would be a recurring event). Participants who recalled grappling with temptation and considered the scenarios all at once were significantly less inclined to support unethical workplace behavior than those in the other groups. The results of this experiment suggest a similar conclusion to that of the second experiment — that thinking ahead and thinking of moral integrity keeps people honest.

In considering the results of the three experiments, a distinct pattern emerged: First, people who recall previous wrongdoing seem a little less likely to repeat their mistakes; the researchers believe this exercise causes subjects to better “anticipate” temptation. But this effect is not an absolute preventative against dishonesty. The second part of the pattern is that even if people anticipate temptation, they are less likely to resist if they think their decision will have no impact on their future integrity, social acceptance, or self-image. The first part of the pattern constitutes a novel perspective on self-control, whereas the second part is “consistent with previous theorizing on why good people behave badly,” notes Ann Tenbrunsel, an ethicist at Mendoza College of Business who was not part of the study.

Another researcher not involved in this study, Andrea Pittarello, a behavioral psychologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, proposes that the mechanism behind ethical decision-making in these experiments is that thinking of previous dishonesty “make[s] moral standards more salient and in turn decrease[s] dishonesty.” He points out that thoughts of previous dishonesty might create a sense of guilt that influences people to behave ethically in an attempt to make up for past wrongdoing.
So why do good people do bad things? This new research suggests that the answer could be as simple as a lack of anticipation of conflict and temptation. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, says the results fit with research by him and others on the idea that seemingly honest people are dishonest “only because of a kind of ‘wishful blindness,’ when we don’t pay attention to our thoughts.”

This area of research could someday pave the way for more practical interventions that could help ensure that ethical decisions are made. In this study, participants had to complete a writing assignment to induce the anticipation that influenced their behavior. Unfortunately, this method is time-consuming and thus impractical for use in day-to-day life. But it does offer a few lessons that could apply to how we think about making decisions. So the next time you are facing an ethical challenge, stop to think about the person you were, the person you are, and the person you want to be. In the words of Warren Buffett, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Read this story on the Scientific American website