Mendoza School of Business

When Good People Behave Badly

Published: June 11, 2012 / Author: Sam Sommers

The following is an excerpt from a Huffington Post blog written by Sam Sommers that quotes Management Ann Tenbrunsel’s research on why good people make unethical decisions. To read the entire article visit: When Good People Behave Badly.

I’m sitting on a plane to Washington, D.C., thinking about unethical behavior. (Insert your own politician joke here.)

No, it’s not my impending proximity to Congress that has me pondering such matters. Rather, it’s that I’m headed to give a keynote address at the annual meeting of Compliance Week, a magazine/website dedicated to corporate governance, risk management, and compliance. That, plus I was just reading about Dan Ariely’s new book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

What do I plan to talk about in discussing the psychology of fraud and unethical behavior? Well, to no real surprise to readers of this blog or my book, I’m going to make the argument that bad behavior is about much more than bad people. That is, our default way of thinking about problematic or unethical behavior is to blame it on a handful of bad apples. But the real story of bad behavior is far more complex.

First, I plan to talk about how unethical behavior is context-dependent. NPR ran a great story last month about the psychology of fraud. One of their first examples was a study done by a researcher at Notre Dame, Ann Tenbrunsel, which provides a compelling illustration of just how influential the framing of a decision can be.

What Tenbrunsel did was observe two different groups of respondents. The first group was asked to ponder a business decision; the other to consider an ethical decision. People in both groups made mental checklists of what they’d want to consider in making their decision. Subsequently, participants were given another, presumably unrelated task on which the opportunity existed to cheat. Who cheated more on this second task? Those previously primed to think about a business decision.


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