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One Recipe for Clearly Unethical Performance

How to make the least of your good intentions.

I spend a lot of time helping students and colleagues develop the skills they need to think and behave more ethically. Today, I want to look at the other side of the coin and help those who may want to behave unethically. It’s not as easy as it looks!

Lots of people think unethical behavior is the product of one ingredient, such as greed, lust, ignorance, or isolation. But my experience—and the references below—support the notion that unethical behavior consists of a variety of ingredients that come together in a sort of recipe. Thus, I want to focus today on cooking up some unethical behavior. Specifically, let’s bake “clearly unethical performances,” or as I like to call them, CUPcakes!

There are many recipes for unethical behavior, and they all include a variety of ingredients. The good news is that the specific quantities of the ingredients may not be as important as their mere presence. (That may be why we seem to have so many CUPcakes around….)

To bake CUPcakes rather than other (ethical) delicacies, you want to start with an attitude of urgency: It’s more important to bake the CUPcakes badly than to take time. And in contrast to those other recipes, there’s no need to second-guess what you’ve done.

Here are the major ingredients:

  • 1 cup threat (any variety, such as losing a license, being sued, etc. Adding this first helps you decide on the other ingredients)
  • 1 cup risk (The more threat there is, the more risk you add.)
  • 1 cup fear or anxiety (This helps bring all the other ingredients together.)
  • 1 cup other affect, including loyalty, friendship, liking, disgust, etc.
  • 1 cup self-interest (greed, lust, etc.)
  • ¾ cup good intentions (not enough to pave a road, but they make the CUPcakes easier to digest)
  • ¾ cup judgment (This can be any kind, but the more threat and affect you add, the less difference it makes whether your judgment is bad or good.)
  • ¾ cup experience (The more threat and affect, the more experience you can add without ruining the recipe.)
  • ¾ cup ignorance
  • ½ cup overconfidence (More on this below.)
  • 1 tsp. arrogance (You can substitute narcissism if you don’t have any arrogance lying around the house.)
  • ½ tsp. bias (prejudice, fundamental attribution error, and/or whatever other bias you like)
  • ½ tsp. unawareness of bias
  • ¼ tsp. regret (but only the regret of not baking, not the regret of CUPcakes)
  • ¼ tsp. ambivalence (Too much slows down the cooking and can ruin it. Always try for as little as possible.)
  • Other spices and ingredients to taste. (But only look in your cabinets for what you want to find; do not even notice any ingredients that will get in the way of your simple recipe.)

Combine all the ingredients. It helps to pre-heat the oven. In fact, you might want to heat up the entire kitchen as you combine the ingredients. Heat seems to make all aspects of the CUPcake process more effective.

Whatever you do, make the recipe easy! If you think you need to deliberate, bake more quickly and simplify the recipe.

It’s also very important to do the baking yourself. Don’t ask for advice, and don’t let people taste your product before it’s absolutely done and there’s no chance to change it. You know how to bake; don’t let people convince you otherwise. No matter what other questions they may ask about the details of the recipe, assume that they’re asking a simple question, and reply that you’re a good baker!

Before you bake, you cannot fail because your success is due to your skill. After you bake, if people complain about your CUPcakes you can always say that your kitchen was not suited to the task, or you were forced to use inferior ingredients, or your critics have poor taste buds. Remember, you are always a good baker.

Bon appétit!


Mitch Handelsman is professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver. With Samuel Knapp and Michael Gottlieb, he is the co-author of Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making (American Psychological Association, 2015). Mitch is also the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012). But here’s what he’s most proud of: He collaborated with pioneering musician Charlie Burrell on Burrell’s autobiography.

© 2017 by Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved


Knapp, S. J., Gottlieb, M. C., & Handelsman, M. M. (2015). Ethical dilemmas in psychotherapy: Positive approaches to decision making. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Knapp, S. J., Handelsman, M. M., & Gottlieb, M. C. (in press). Enhancing professionalism through self-reflection. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

Rogerson, M. D., Gottlieb, M. C., Handelsman, M. M., Knapp, S., & Younggren, J. (2011). Nonrational processes in ethical decision making. American Psychologist, 66, 614-623.