Doing the Right Thing Is Often Much Harder Than You Think

People are complicated, very complicated.

Posted Jun 20, 2011

The daily news is full of stories of prominent people doing very bad things: Politicians and their various sex and money scandals, Wall Street professionals scamming others of millions (even billions), clergy who sexually violate minors, and so on. The question is the same for all: How could these leading pillars of the community do such horrible things? 

Think of all of the examples of leaders behaving so badly: In politics we have Congressmen Weiner, Gingrich, and Foley, Senators Edwards, Vitter, Ensign, and Craig, and Governors Sanford, Spitzer, Blagojevich, and Schwarzenegger to name just a few. On Wall Street we have Bernie Madoff and all of the guys at Enron (such as Ken Lay) and those at Arthur Anderson as well as now Dominque Strauss-Kahn from the IMF. In Hollywood we have Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, OJ Simpson, Jesse James, and so forth. The list goes on and on doesn't it?

Obviously there are no simple answers in understanding their unethical behavior and remarkable choices. We can blame the corrupting influence of money and power of course. We can attribute their actions to narcissism, a lack of moral fortitude, or a thrill seeking Type T personality. But at the end of the day, we have to come to grips with the hard fact that people are complicated...very complicated! They are not all good or all bad. Generally very good people can do egregious things and very bad people can do some very good things. Poeple don't usually start off doing such egrecious things but rather they build up to it, step by step, over time. 

While those in the news get much attention for their misbehaviors, perhaps under the radar screen are the millions of other stories of people who we know and interact with regularly who also have embarrassing and terrible secrets to hide. Since they aren't famous media won't be interested in their stories. As a psychologist who has been treating patients for 30 years I know very well the remarkable range and complexity of human behavior that is out there even among those who we would consider great people with spotless reputations. Good men who cheat on their wives or engage in sleezy pornography, good workers who find ways to steal from the office or from others, and so forth. Most never get any press attention (and are llikely grateful for it). 

Rather than being appalled by the behavior of those we read about in the press perhaps we should reflect on how hard it really is to do the right thing all the time. Rather than being overly judgmental, maybe we can be more humbled by these stories. Sadly, while we expect excellent behavior in others (especially those we hold up to be leaders or men and women of great power and influence) we might need to humbly note that under particular circumstances such as access to unlimited money, power, influence, and a lack of appropriate checks and balances perhaps all of us can fail to do the right thing when tested. Of course this doesn't excuse their behavior and people need to be accountable for their actions. I'm just suggesting that he approach these stories with some degree of humility and compassion knowing that if the conditions are right many of us might engage in shameful behavior too. 

It is easy to feel superior to these very flawed human beings and we may even enjoy seeing them squirm but these stories are an excellent reminder in how flawed we are and can be when the conditions are just right. 

Doing the right thing is more complicated than just willing it or being a "good person." It takes more, much more to do the right thing all the time. Given unlimited power, money, and influence how might you behave?   

What do you think? 

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