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11 psychological reasons why good people do bad things

Orange is the new blackJoJo Whilden for NetflixWhat causes these smart, successful people to get wrapped up in illegal activities and unethical behaviour?

It’s an old story: the star executive who gets caught waist-deep in a fraud scandal; the finance phenom who steals millions by skimming off the top.

What causes these smart, successful people to get wrapped up in illegal activities and unethical behaviour? Dr. Muel Kaptein of the Rotterdam School of Management tackled this question in a paper about why good people do bad things.

These major crimes usually escalate from smaller offenses or lapses in judgment that are rationalized by a slew of psychological reasons.

Business Insider collected 11 insights from Kaptein that explain a few of the various reasons why good people lie, cheat, and steal.

This is an update of a story originally reported by Max Nisen and Aimee Groth.

The Galatea effect

Self image determines behaviour. People who have a strong sense of themselves as individuals are less likely to do unethical things.

Alternatively, employees who see themselves as determined by their environment or having their choices made for them are more likely to bend the rules, as they feel less individually responsible.

Source: Muel Kaptein

Social bond theory

In large organisations, employees can begin to feel more like numbers or cogs in a machine than individuals.

When people feel detached from the goals and leadership of their workplace, they are more likely to commit fraud, steal, or hurt the company via neglect.

Source: Muel Kaptein

The power of names

When bribery becomes 'greasing the wheels' or accounting fraud becomes 'financial engineering,' unethical behaviour may be seen in a more positive light.

The use of nicknames and euphemisms for questionable practices can free them of their moral connotations, making them seem more acceptable.

Source: Muel Kaptein

Environmental influence

Employees reflect their environment. If corruption, major or minor, is a part of their workplace, they become blind to its occurrence and its possible costs.

A study incorporating participants from a variety of countries found that the less transparent and more corrupt the participant's country of origin, the more willing they were to accept or give bribes.

Source: Muel Kaptein

Acceptance of small theft

There are dozens of small temptations in any workplace. Stationery, sugar packets, and toilet paper frequently go home with employees.

Those small thefts are ignored. So are slightly larger ones, like over-claiming expenses or accepting unauthorised business gifts. It doesn't take long for people to begin pushing those limits.

Source: Muel Kaptein

Tunnel vision

Setting and achieving goals is important, but single-minded focus on them can blind people to ethical concerns.

When Enron offered large bonuses to employees for bringing in sales, they became so focused on that goal that they forgot to make sure they were profitable or moral. We all know how that ended.

Source: Muel Kaptein

The blinding effect of power

Powerful people appear more corrupt because they're caught more publicly. However, a recent study found that when given power, people set ethical rules much higher for others than they do themselves.

If someone is influential and sets rules for others, they can begin to see themselves as morally distinct from their employees, and not subject to the same rules.

Source: Muel Kaptein

Time pressure

In a study, a group of theology students were told to preach the story of the good Samaritan, then walk to another building where they'd be filmed. Along the way, they encountered a man in visible distress.

When given ample time, almost all helped. When they were deliberately let out late, only 63% helped. When encouraged to go as fast as possible, 90% ignored the man.

Source: Muel Kaptein

The free-rider problem

'If nobody else steals stationery, the company won't notice if I do. If nobody else in the area pollutes, they won't notice if a tiny bit of waste is released.'

Positive and ethical behaviour can sometimes engender an opposite reaction. If total damage is limited, people feel as though they can take more liberties.

Source: Muel Kaptein

Cognitive dissonance and rationalization

When people's actions differ from their morals, they begin to rationalize both to protect themselves from a painful contradiction and to build up protection against accusations.

The bigger the dissonance, the larger the rationalization, and the longer it lasts, the less immoral it seems.

Source: Muel Kaptein

The Pygmalion effect

The way that people are seen and treated influences the way they act. When employees are viewed suspiciously and constantly treated like potential thieves, they are more likely to be thieves.

This effect occurs even in employees who aren't initially inclined towards unethical behaviour.

Source: Muel Kaptein

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