Why good people do bad things is a question whose answer people have been trying to find for centuries. A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has tried to deal with this problem by analyzing instances in which people give up or resist in front of ethical temptations.
The study was performed by Oliver Sheldon of Rutgers University who is a specialist in organizational behavior in collaboration with social psychologist Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago. Their research was focused on the factors which influence self-control when people are supposed to make an ethical decision. The study even proposes a solution to how to stop dishonesty.
According to Sheldon the general belief is that good people do good things, whereas bad people do bad things and character is to blame for unethical behavior. However everybody acts dishonest sometimes. According to him this is not influenced by the character, but it is influenced by the situation and it has to do with the way in which individuals view their own unethical behavior. Consequently self-control or the lack of it is what explains the reason why good people can also do bad things.
The researchers designed three experiments in which they observed what crossed the minds of the people before they made an ethical decision. The behavior of the participants was recorded after the participants in the study were given various combinations of prompts destined to activate thoughts of social and moral integrity or past temptations. Sheldon remarked:
“We predicted, and found, that such forewarning… helps people better prepare to proactively counteract the influence of impending ethical temptations on their behavior.”
After the three experiments the investigators remarked certain patterns. It seems that people who remember that they have done bad things in the past are less likely to do wrong again. This exercise is believed to make individuals better anticipate temptation. However, this does not stop dishonesty. Although people anticipate temptation they may not resist if they believe that their decision will not influence their self-image, social acceptance and future integrity. This explains why even bag people do bad things. The answer is temptation and the lack of conflict anticipation.
Such studies could in the future enable more practical interventions which could help people take ethical decision. Although the method used in the study is time-consuming and cannot be applied in day-today life it can still teach some lessons about how we think when making decisions.
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