Six Common Ways People Justify Unethical Behavior
Why we may feel good about ourselves even when we do wrong.
Posted Aug 31, 2020
Most of us want to believe that we are morally upright people who act according to a strong sense of right and wrong. But when faced with temptations to derive personal benefit by violating moral principles, people do not always take the high road. Research suggests that lying, cheating, and other harmful acts are more common than we might hope.
How are people able to engage in unethical behaviors—often repeatedly—without being overwhelmed by guilt?
In many cases, psychological processes kick in that frame the behavior as less immoral and the self as moral. Researchers call these self-serving justifications, and they can take many forms. Sometimes they serve to rationalize a desired behavior before it takes place, making it easier to go through with it, while other times they help people feel better about something they have already done.
The following are six common strategies researchers have identified that people use to justify unethical behavior and maintain a positive self-view.
1. Viewing the behavior as a grey area
One way to avoid a sense of culpability is to define a behavior as morally ambiguous, rather than clearly wrong. Some situations are indeed morally complex or confusing, but people may interpret the information at hand in a selective manner.
For example, inconsistent guidelines for public health practices can create genuine confusion, but in some cases, they may also be used strategically to justify whatever behavior is personally desired. For this reason, researchers recommend that rules should be made clear and concrete—not only in terms of what they are but also why they matter.
That said, even when rules are fairly clear, people are often able to find wiggle room. In one study, participants were instructed to privately roll a die either once or three times and report the first number they rolled, for which they would receive an equivalent monetary reward (e.g., $5 for rolling a 5). The results showed that participants in the multiple rolls condition reported significantly higher numbers than those in the single roll condition: For example, 34 percent of the multiple-rollers reported a 6, compared to 19 percent of the single-rollers. The probability of rolling a 6 is only ⅙, or 16.67 percent. The researchers inferred that more participants in the multiple rolls condition must have been lying.
Why might this be? Participants may have more easily rationalized inflating the number they rolled first if it did in fact appear on a later roll—that is, if it “almost could have been” that higher number—than when lying required inventing a number they never saw.
2. Believing the behavior will benefit others
People may also justify unethical behavior by framing it as an act of altruism rather than self-interest. In another study using the die-rolling paradigm described above, participants were more likely to lie about the result of their roll if a second participant would also be paid accordingly to the result, suggesting that the opportunity for an altruistic justification led participants to feel more comfortable using deception for personal gain.
A real-world example of this justification might be present in the college admissions scandal, where some wealthy parents were found to have engaged in unethical behaviors such as fraud and bribery in an effort to secure spots for their children at elite colleges.
In an apology, one parent said the decision came from wanting the best for her daughters, saying “I thought I was acting out of love for my children.” But she also acknowledged that “in reality, it only undermined and diminished my daughters’ abilities and accomplishments,” and that it contributed to making the college admissions process less fair for all students, revealing how the altruism justification can ultimately backfire.
3. Highlighting moral credentials
Paradoxically, it turns out that people are often less likely to behave in alignment with their moral values when they have just demonstrated their morality in another way, a phenomenon researchers call “moral licensing.” The idea is that one good deed can make people feel licensed to forgo another as if they have already checked off that box and can move on.
One set of studies found that participants who reflected on the personal significance of positive traits such as generosity, fairness, and kindness, compared to those who reflected on negative traits or neutral words, subsequently donated less to a charity (around $1 compared to around $5 in the negative traits condition), and indicated less concern with following ethical principles in a hypothetical workplace scenario, presumably because they felt less compelled to prove their moral standing after they had already reflected on their virtues.
In other research, participants were more likely to cheat and steal as part of a computer game involving a monetary reward after they had purchased an environmentally friendly product, compared to a conventional one.
The take-home point is not that reflecting on virtues or engaging in environmentally friendly behavior causes immorality, but rather that people may feel that perceived good deeds let them off the hook in other situations.
In this way, moral licensing can be a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it may encourage moral behavior in the short-term, especially when a person’s moral identity is threatened and they are motivated to reaffirm it, but it is unlikely to be a sustainable source of moral behavior in the long run.
4. Symbolically cleansing
After a transgression has already taken place, research suggests that people may engage in literal or figurative forms of cleansing, as if washing away their sins.
When participants in one study reflected on a past unethical act, compared to an ethical one, they were significantly more likely to choose an antiseptic cleansing wipe over a pencil when these items were presented as free gifts at the end of the study: Roughly two-thirds of those in the unethical group chose the wipe, compared to only one-third of the ethical group.
A follow-up study in the same paper found that the mere act of cleaning one’s hands with an antiseptic wipe after recalling a transgression led participants to feel less guilt, shame, regret, and embarrassment, and they were half as likely to volunteer to help with another study. The researchers’ interpretation of this finding is that cleansing may restore people’s sense of moral purity, reducing their perceived need to compensate for a transgression.
While cleansing behavior may have psychological benefits (as well as hygienic advantages), it doesn’t necessarily have social ones; findings like these suggest that it may decrease, rather than increase, the likelihood that a person will try to make amends or do better in the future.
5. Partially coming clean
Admitting to mistakes can be a constructive step in the process of responding to wrongdoing. But sometimes people admit only to one part of what happened, perhaps a part that is more likely to be found out anyway, rather than fully owning up.
Research suggests that partial confessions may be used to restore people’s moral self-image while allowing them to avoid the negative consequences of a full confession. But this same research finds that in reality, opting for only a partial confession can lead people to ultimately feel poorly about themselves.
6. Demonizing those who have done worse
Another way people may try to feel virtuous after a misdeed is to judge others even more harshly for the same offense. Researchers refer to this tendency as ethical distancing, or “the pot calling the kettle black.”
They give the example of a college administrator who was known for being especially unforgiving of applicants inflating credentials, but who later was found to have done the same herself in an egregious way, claiming to have degrees she did not have. Other examples might involve politicians making a point of being tough on certain types of crimes that they are themselves involved in.
Studies of ethical distancing have found that it is more likely to occur under certain conditions. First, the person has to see the behavior in question as immoral. Sometimes after a transgression, people will rationalize it by viewing it as less problematic, in which case they might judge others less harshly for the same offense. Second, the person has to believe that their own transgression is unlikely to be exposed, lest they risk appearing hypocritical.
In summary, we often experience a conflict between a desire to see ourselves—and be seen—as good people, and a desire to behave in ways that don’t necessarily align with that self-image. We may try to resolve this dissonance in a range of different ways, from changing the way we view the behavior to changing the way we view ourselves and others.
But as long as we are motivated more by a desire to appear moral than to actually be moral, these self-serving justifications are unlikely to promote behavior that serves our long-term interests, or those of our organizations and communities.
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Shalvi, S., Gino, F., Barkan, R., & Ayal, S. (2015). Self-serving justifications: doing wrong and feeling moral. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(2), 125–130.