Why Do Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things?

By Dr. Steven Mintz

The Role of Cognitive Dissonance

Have you ever wondered why people you know who seem to be paragons of virtue sometimes deviate from ethical norms and do the wrong thing? Just about everybody knows such a person. But, what causes them to act that way in a particular situation? I was interviewed for my views on these issues by the Pakistani magazine, The FEEEL.

We can start the discussion by examining the concept of cognitive dissonance. It holds that there is a disconnect between how we think we should behave and how we do behave. This could be due to ethical blind spots, or the inability to see the ethical dimension of a problem.

Most people deal with cognitive dissonance in one of three ways:

Change one or more of our attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs so as to bring the two into alignment.

Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs.

Reduce the importance of the beliefs, attitudes, or beliefs.

A recent example of cognitive dissonance is the number of people that paid a broker with connections to get their kids admitted to the best colleges. Two holiday stars that caught up in the wrongdoing are Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin. These are otherwise ethical people who deviated from ethical norms in order to achieve a desired result namely the admission to a college of their choice in a situation where their kids probably couldn’t meet the rigorous standards for admission.

Rationalizations for Bad Behavior

People who act unethically generally provide rationalizations for their behavior. Underlying these explanations is the concept of situational ethics where decisions are made in a subjective manner and based on the underlying circumstances. The problem here is the decision-maker lacks an ethical foundation to tell right from wrong and allows each situation to detect right and wrong rather than rely on ethical norms such as honesty and integrity. A person of integrity would never engage in pay to play schemes.

Another rationalization is what’s going on now with respect to K-12 kids cheating on online tests and explaining it away by saying remote learning is so difficult or that the teacher doesn’t teach so cheating is acceptable. This is just another form of situational ethics.

Another rationalization is to say the decision was a on-off affair. It only happened this one time and then I’ll go back to being ethical. The problem here is the so-called ethical slippery slope phenomenon. In other words, once you cheat in one area, especially if you get away with it, you are more likely to cheat again and it becomes an unhealthy pattern of behavior.

Another rationalization occurs in many workplace ethical dilemmas. It is to explain the need to be a team player and not rock the boat. Here, you may be concerned about retaliation if you don’t go along with what your boss has asked you to do. The culture of an organization may contribute to bad behaviors.

To better cope with these situations, ask yourself the following questions:

Would you normally consider this action to be wrong?

Are you excusing bad behavior by blaming others?

Are you blaming the victim to excuse your bad behaviors?

One test I use in teaching ethics to college students is what I call the social media test. Ask yourself: How would you feel if the decision you are about to make was discussed on social media? Would you proud of it? Would you be able to defend it?

Emotional Intelligence

The underlying cause of bad behaviors is often a lack of emotional intelligence. Simply stated, emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions. There are five elements of emotional intelligence including the following.

Self-awareness. Being conscious of your own feelings and motives. You know how your emotions affect yourself and others, and you don’t allow your emotions to control you.

Self-regulation. You don’t make impulsive decisions. You think about the consequences of an action before deciding what to do.

You think about the big picture and assess how your actions will contribute to long-term success.

You are not self-centered but empathize with others and your situations. You tend to be a good listener, slow to judge, and understanding of the needs and wants of others.

It’s also important to know the signs that can indicate a lack of emotional intelligence including the following.

Trouble being assertive or taking charge.

Don’t handle feedback well.

Hold grudges.

Can’t move past your mistakes.

Feel misunderstood.

Judgmental, easily offended, and have difficulty maintaining relationships.

Allow your emotions to control you rather than being in control of them and acting accordingly.

Coping Skills

There are ways to develop coping skills and strengthen your resolve so that cognitive dissonance does not occur. Instead, your attitudes and beliefs are in harmony with your behaviors. The most important is to understand the triggers that can lead to bad behavior. This may be due to placing too much trust in others and not in your own feelings and ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Ethics education is important. This provides a foundation for rightful behavior and develops the characteristics to enable a person to not only see what the right thing to do is but have the skills to make that decision and carry through with ethical behavior.

Training is important especially where workplace ethics is concern. All organizations should commit to ethics training to develop a strong culture that says to employees: Do what we say which is in concert with what we do.

About Dr. Steven Mintz:
Dr. Steven Mintz (www.stevenmintzethics.com), author of “Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior”, has frequently commented on ethical issues in society and business ethics through his Ethics Sage blogs. His Workplace Ethics Advice blog has been recognized as one of the top 30 in corporate social responsibility. He also has served as an expert witness on ethics matters. Dr. Mintz spent almost 40 years of his life in academia. He has held positions as a chair in Accounting at San Francisco State University and Texas State University. He was the Dean of the College of Business and Public Administration at Cal State University, San Bernardino. He recently retired as a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. Mintz received the Accounting Exemplar Award from the Public Interest Section of the American Accounting Association.

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