A new research has tried reasoning why good people do bad things, offering some insights about when people succumb to versus resist ethical temptations.
Lead author Oliver Sheldon said that people often think that bad people do bad things and good people do good things, and that unethical behavior just comes down to character, 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.
Rutgers University’s Sheldon added that self-control, or a lack thereof, may be one factor which explains why good people occasionally do bad things.
Researchers found that participants who were encouraged to anticipate temptation and who thought their behavior was consistent with their future self, were honest, but participants not encouraged to anticipate temptation and/or who believed that their behavior was inconsistent with their future self, were likelier to be dishonest.
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 added.
He noted that people often compartmentalize their experiences of temptation, making it much easier for them to rationalize the behavior. 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.
The study is published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.