Unethical Behavior: 3 Studies You Should Know

You probably think about unethical behavior as isolated incidents: bad people doing bad things.

Psychologists know it’s not that simple.


Unethical behavior is rarely a self-correcting problem for organizations. In fact, it tends to spread from one person to the next, and thus get worse rather than better.

In this article, we talk about 3 studies that provide important insights.



1. Unethical behavior is contagious

When a person sees someone do something unethical, it increases the chances that they will do it too.

There have been many studies on this topic, but this simple experiment provides a nice demonstration.

Participants in the study were asked to complete a series of tasks within a short time limit, and then take money out of an envelope to pay themselves based on their performance.

People could actually complete about 7 out of the 20 possible tasks within the time limit. If they were being honest.


Some participants were told to put their test through a shredder when they were done—no one would ever know how many they completed. With no chance of being caught, participants on average claimed to have completed 12 out of 20. Some amount of cheating going on.

But here’s the most interesting part. The researchers hired an actor to play as another participant in the study. The actor got up almost immediately, shredded their test, and paid themselves for completing all 20 out of 20. After watching someone else do it, about 25% of people cheated and did exactly the same thing. That’s 1 in 4 people.


2. Creativity makes unethical behavior seem OK

Clever ethical violations somehow seem less wrong.

The research studies demonstrating this are pretty straightforward: You show 2 different groups of people 2 different versions of the same basic ethical violation, and see how they react.

For example, they had scenarios where a clerk steals $50 from a register. In one version, the clerk just pockets the money (uncreative) while in the other version, the clerk forges paperwork for a $50 returned item (creative).

When people saw another person’s actions as more creative, innovative, or original, they ended up judging the same violations as significantly less wrong and less deserving of punishment.


It’s not just about how we judge other people.

When participants read about more creative ethical violations, they admitted that they, themselves, would be more likely to do the same thing.

And there were similar results if you ask people to talk about a time they did something unethical. When people talk about a more creative ethical violation from their past, they don’t tend to see their actions as being all that bad.


3. Leaders don’t see unethical behavior as unethical

The higher a person’s rank in an organization, the less likely they are to notice ethical violations or “speak up” about them.

There is some fascinating new research in this area, including an analysis of US government employees showing that each higher rank of employee is significantly less likely to report problems than the one below.

There’s an experiment that provides a really straightforward demonstration of the same problem. They brought in groups of people to work together on making decisions. After the people got to know each other, the groups voted on who would be their high-ranking leader.

Actually, it was completely random. But some people believed that they were “elected” to lead the group. Long story short, the “elected leaders” were 75% less likely to disagree with the group, even when the decision was about lying to another group for their own financial gain.


Why does this happen?

Higher-ranking people tend to identify more strongly with their groups.

Even if you just got “elected” in an experiment, you will probably still have a stronger sense of “us” as a result.

This attachment to the group can be dangerous. It tends to blind people to ethical violations. People don’t want to admit (even to themselves) that their group is doing something wrong—so they don’t.




Image credits: Jeremy, Craig Sunter

  1 comment

  1. Avatar Selma Sheridan   •  

    Somehow, I haven’t received your blog for the last two weeks, so I subscribed again. Interesting work!

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