Why good people sometimes break bad
A new study sheds light on our unethical choices and what we can do to avoid them.
In a perfect world, you would eat all your vegetables, save all your money and finish every workout. Oh, and you'd never lie or make an unethical decision.
But, alas, we don't live in the fictional town of Mayberry. In the real world, even good people can sometimes make bad choices. So why do we trip up, and what can we do to avoid such pitfalls?
A new study from a team of American and Israeli professors offers fresh insights into why we sometimes stray from good behavior. As lead researcher Dr. Oliver Sheldon of Rutgers University explains, these hiccups in moral character are based on specific situations as well as our own failure to recognize temptation.
"People often think that bad people do bad things and good people do good things, and that unethical behavior just comes down to character," said Sheldon, a Cornell University graduate. "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."
To better understand our decision-making process, Sheldon partnered with Dr. Ayelet Fishbach, a social psychologist who has studied ethical temptations from her years at Tel Aviv University to her current position at the University of Chicago. The pair created three experiments to test the moral fortitude of the participants.
The conclusions from their tests highlighted three key insights into human nature and temptation:
- The first is that when told in advance about the consequences of unethical decisions, people are less likely to be dishonest in their choices.
- The second discovered that we're more likely to break the rules when we perceive our naughty moment as an isolated incident with no bearing on our long-term morality.
- And third, there's societal influence – which can lead to the perception that rule-bending is perfectly normal. "Unethical behavior may not be experienced as something that needs to be resisted if people think it's socially acceptable," Sheldon added.
Based on their findings, the researchers believe that the best way for people to avoid temptation is to first anticipate it and then reflect on the potential damage it can cause to others, as well as to their own self-image. "Keeping such considerations in mind as one enters into potentially tempting situations can help people resist the temptation to behave unethically," Sheldon said.
So the next time you're thinking of not eating vegetables or cheating on your diet, just think of this study. And if you still need motivation, listen to this advice from study co-author Fishbach:
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