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The Science of Why Good People Do Bad Things

If people consider themselves to have strong morals, why do they often turn bad?

History is replete with entire groups of people, organizations, and nations, engaging in horrific, immoral behavior, ranging from genocide, to riots and killings, to massive greed and corruption. Often, these are not the actions of individuals, but of collective groups led by a toxic leader. All too often, we point the finger at the leader as the cause of the bad behavior, but without willing followers, the destruction would never occur.

I am attending the International Leadership Association conference and listening to experts discuss good leader (and follower) behavior, and also bad leadership. I was particularly impressed with a talk by leadership ethicist, Craig Johnson. Craig begins with the well-known fact that in our leader-centric society, we give leaders too much credit for the good that happens (perhaps explaining how/why outrageously high CEO salaries seem justified), and more than their share of the blame for the bad (often a corrupt leader is imprisoned, but the aiding followers are often not prosecuted, arguing that “I was just following orders” – what Johnson calls “displacement of responsibility”).

In many of these cases, the leaders and followers are not initially bad or corrupt people. Johnson argues that processes occur that allow leaders and followers to disengage their moral reasoning and principals, and justify their bad behavior.

He starts with the assertion that people believe we are more moral than we actually are, but the process of moral disengagement leads us to act immorally, and justify our bad behavior.

Justification of bad behavior occurs in a variety of ways. First, we begin to focus on desired outcomes, and rationalize the means to achieve them. If an outcome is important, we begin to believe that the “ends justify the means.” For example, the torturing of suspected terrorists (i.e., waterboarding), is justified because of the desired outcome of protecting citizens from terrorist attacks. ISIS also uses the same process to justify the killing of Westerners as an “acceptable” means of achieving their ends. This “deactivation of moral standards,” as Craig Johnson calls it, is a slippery slope that leads only to increases in bad behavior.

Another way, according to Johnson, that we justify immoral behavior is through using “euphemistic language.” So, killed or injured civilians in bombing or drone attacks are referred to as “collateral damage.” Likewise, it is easier to imprison or execute a journalist or tourist if the government labels the person a “subversive” or a “spy.”

Another means by which people justify their bad behavior is through “advantageous comparisons.” They downplay their own bad behavior by comparing it to the even worse behavior by others (“sure I stole a small amount of money, but my boss really took the company for big bucks.”).

Often, people behave badly through diffusion of responsibility. This explains crowd behavior, such as looting during riots (“everybody was doing it”), or hazing behavior (“it’s a tradition, and I was hazed when I was a newcomer”).

Bad behavior also occurs, and our moral reasoning fails us, through devaluing of the victims (“they started it”; “they deserved it”). Processes such as these lead to an escalation of violence (“he pulled out a knife, so I pulled out my gun”).

What is the antidote to moral disengagement? The key is to take personal responsibility for our actions and being alert to the dangers of moral disengagement,

Craig Johnson offers these strategies and questions:

• When others try to encourage you to bad behavior (“the dark side”) realize that you are an independent agent, and that you have a personal responsibility to behave morally.

• Step back and ask yourself, would I normally consider this action to be wrong?

• Does my language hide what is really going on?

• Who am I comparing myself to and am I making this comparison to excuse my behavior?

• Am I excusing the harm I am doing by blaming others?

• Am I blaming the victim to excuse my harmful actions?

Follow me on Twitter:!/ronriggio

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