Anticipating temptation may reduce unethical behavior, research finds
From the 22 May 2015 EurekAlert
Why do good people do bad things? It’s a question that has been pondered for centuries, and new research published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology may offer some insights about when people succumb to versus resist ethical temptations.
“People often think that bad people do bad things and good people do good things, and that unethical behavior just comes down to character,” says lead research author Oliver Sheldon, PhD. “But most people behave dishonestly sometimes, and frequently, this may have more to do with the situation and how people view their own unethical behavior than character, per se.”
In a series of experiments, participants who anticipated a temptation to act unethically were less likely to then behave unethically, relative to those who did not. These participants also were less likely to endorse unethical behavior that offered short-term benefits, such as stealing office supplies or illegally downloading copyrighted material. The study was published online in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin on May 22, 2015.
“Self-control, or a lack thereof, may be one factor which explains why good people occasionally do bad things,” says Sheldon, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Rutgers University.
Anticipating temptation may only help, however, if people identify an unethical act as having the potential to jeopardize their self-image, integrity, or reputation.
Participants who were encouraged to anticipate temptation and who thought their behavior was consistent with their future self, were honest
People also may be more likely to engage in unethical behavior if they believe the act is an isolated incident.
“Unethical behavior may not be experienced as something that needs to be resisted if people think it’s socially acceptable or does not reflect on their moral self-image,” Sheldon says. “People often compartmentalize their experiences of temptation, making it much easier for them to rationalize the behavior. They might say, ‘Just because I took office supplies home for personal use one time, that doesn’t mean I’m a thief.'”
If people want to avoid unethical behavior, it may help to anticipate situations where they will be tempted and consider how acting upon such temptation fits with their long-term goals or beliefs about their own morality. “You may not be concerned about getting caught or about your reputation if people found out, but you might be concerned about your own ethical self-image,” Sheldon says. “Keeping such considerations in mind as one enters into potentially tempting situations can help people resist the temptation to behave unethically.”
The same suggestions may apply for employers, Sheldon says. For example, a manager could email employees before a work trip to warn them against the temptation to inflate travel expenses. The reminder about upcoming temptation might help protect the company’s bottom line, especially if employees view the temptation to inflate travel expenses as something they will encounter repeatedly in the future.
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