Why Good People Do Bad Things and What We Can Do About It

Crowd, by James Cridland
Crowd, by James Cridland

We can agree that people desire – in general – to act in an ethical manner and see themselves as ethical people. And there is general agreement also on values that matter to most people across different cultures: courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom and transcendence.

That said, there are many situations in which good people act against their values

A good example of this is an experiment inspired by the biblical story of the Good Samaritan and conducted with seminary students as subjects (Darley, J.M., and Batson, C.D.: “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational Dispositional Variables in Helping Behaviour”, JPSP, 1973, 27, 100-108).  The students were on their way to give a talk about the Good Samaritan and came across someone who had been mugged. The amount of “hurriedness” induced in the subjects had a major impact on their helping behaviour. Thus, overall, 40% of the seminary students offered some help to the victim. But, the percentage rose to 63% for those in low hurry and to a 45% for those in medium hurry. But it decreased to a 10% for those in high hurry.

What does this study tell us about ethical behaviour in today’s corporate world?

As individuals, we think that we always act in a rational way. But research demonstrates that this is not always so

The traditional view would say that when we face an ethical situation, we check our values, judge the situation in a rational way and, following our values, take action. But the Good Samaritan experiment demonstrates that on many occasions even people with the best standards may act different than expected. So on many occasions we may act against our values.

Why is this the case?  Over the last several years, we have witnessed how ethics has started leveraging other disciplines like psychology.  In their book Blind Spots (translated into Spanish as Puntos Ciegos), experts like Bazerman and Tenbrunsel have started to talk about what is called Behavioural Ethics, an approach that encompasses concepts like “ethical fading” – losing the ethical angle of a given problem – or being “ethically bounded,” i.e., having a limited ethical perception.

With the help of psychology and approaches such as those outlined in Blind Spots, what might be some of the situations in which good people find themselves acting unethically?

1. In some situations we may not perceive a question or a problem as having an ethical dimension. In our recent history we have seen how many employees of banks sold assets – preferred shares – to people. Did they all know the inherent risks of these assets? Or did they assume that as their superiors had approved the sale, everything was ok? Or were some of them that sold these for their families so focused on meeting their objectives that they neglected to consider anything else? Perhaps there are yet other reasons for these blind spots.

This case is very controversial and painful for many families, but the point is that maybe some people acted wrongly without really noticing.

2. We may act unconsciously, in an automated manner and based upon preconceptions or prejudices in other situations. Some experiments have demonstrated that we may act against our deepest beliefs. Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University conducted an experiment in which black people demonstrated unconscious prejudices against people of their same race. In this experiment, both black and white people unconsciously related black to bad and white to good.



3. Emotions may “hijack” our brain. In situations full of stress, we may overcharge our brain and not pay attention to relevant things, instead focusing on narrow goals, but forgetting the how. In the case of the Good Samaritan, probably many of the students were so stressed that their attention narrowed to their immediate goal: giving their speech. But it also made them neglect things occurring around them that were very relevant to their true values



4. We tend to overvalue the short-term vs. long-term. When faced with dilemmas where short-term impact may seem more attractive than the long-term variety, we may be at risk and “forget” or let some ethical considerations “fade” or vanish. Before a situation occurs, if we have the chance to predict our behaviour, most people predict that they will behave correctly. And after the decision has been taken, we will think we acted ethically. But when the moment to decide comes, we may be affected by short-term issues – this year’s bonus – and by other factors: pressures, no time, etc.


So we may act against our values, yet think we have behaved correctly.



The good thing is that we can fight against many of the issues mentioned here and successfully overcome them.

As individuals there are some recipes we can put in place:

1. Increase our ethical awareness: Have we integrated the ethical dimension into our decision-making processes? Can we cope with ethical situations with a solid framework?

2. Self-knowledge and self-awareness: As Bill George ( George, B. and Sims, P. “True North”, Jossey Bass, 2007), former CEO of Medtronic and professor at Harvard Business School put it, we need to “peel back the onion” and get a better understanding of ourselves. What are our values and beliefs? What is our real purpose and what are our motivations, both intrinsic and extrinsic? What are our personal blind spots and weaknesses? What unchallenged beliefs may distort our thinking and how do we react in stressful situations? We need to understand the answers to these questions to be able to cope with ethical dilemmas.

3. Increase our levels of consciousness: As we have seen, many of the difficult situations we encounter may come from automated behaviours or from a lack of attention due to stress or other factors. Increasing our consciousness levels and managing stress will help us to face ethical situations in a better manner. Bill George also mentions some practices like mindfulness as a way to increase our levels of consciousness and self-awareness.



4. Gain perspective: We need to get a better view of situations and have the time, the inputs and the reflection space to perceive things in a better way, trying to always find the truth and avoiding mental – conscious or unconscious – justifications. Do we have all the information about our potential decisions? Can we get a better perspective by simply talking to a mentor or to other people in a free, non-judgemental way? Do we have time to decide? And can we find space to reflect?  The same things may look completely different if you are able to gain new insights.

5. Understanding the complexities of the corporate world:  Taking decisions in complex corporations may – as we all know – involve not only the self, but many other constituencies. We need to understand the context, the key people involved, what their main goals are, and be ready to be challenged or face loyalty dilemmas – if you act like you are not being loyal[CF3] . Time and preparation are key under these circumstances.

So, are we really free to decide?

Many would say then that, because in some occasions we may act unconsciously or with less ethical perspective, we may not be considered accountable for some behaviours.

This reasoning is misguided; we are free to act and therefore these potential problems should not be used as excuses for unethical behaviour.

What we must understand however is that we may face unexpected challenges and must be ready to rise above and meet these challenges well equipped, knowing what tools and techniques can help us act with our values as our guide.

The good thing about this mix of disciplines is that, on one hand we can now learn mechanisms that may be at play while facing ethical decisions. On the other hand, the interdisciplinary approach allows us to find more possible remedies to solve these issues.



9 thoughts on “Why Good People Do Bad Things and What We Can Do About It

  1. Great post! I found it a very latest topic. We talk a lot about CSR but we often forget about the individual and leader’s ethic.

    I believe it usually is a matter of commitment and responsibility. That may be the case you mentioned with the preferred shares: I can imagine that some bank employees considered it was not their concern but the customer’s. We are used to hear: they are free to buy here or not. But they probably did not commit to providing sufficient information for them to make the decision.

    It is also hard to jump out of ones comfort zone. We remain inside typically when we feel anonymous. I heard that it is easier to say “I hate my father” to the person one is talking to than “You are boring me”. The Good Samaritan probably stared at the moribund’s eyes before taking pity on him, whereas the priest and the levite passed by on the other side. To the typical question about the adequacy of giving charity to beggars, a priest once answered: I am not telling you whether to give or not; but at least look him in the eyes and, if possible, listen to him.

    Among your useful recipes I would choose integrating the ethical dimension into our decision-making process, since the learning process entails embracing the concept. This starts being conscious of our behavior and ends up with an automatic response. As when we learn to drive.

    Thanks for the tips!

  2. Great article, I enjoyed it and it does indeed make you wonder how we´ll act in certain occassions. Acting ethically is also an issue of practice, just like everything else in life. If we are normally ethical, we`ll likely act ethically when faced with a choice….so it comes down to practicing in a disciplined way. Josh Margolis of the Harvard Business School has studied well the issue of ethics in business, and how some people might even be forced to act unethically for the greater good (http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/profile.aspx?facId=10658). finally, I reccomend Dov Seidman`s How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything – which explains how to build ethics into every step of the value chain (http://www.amazon.com/How-Why-Anything-Means-Everything/dp/1118106377). Thanks and regards

  3. Very good and interesting article! Unfortunately, this issue is increasingly relevant among the issues of greatest concern to managers in particular and the general public, due to the many cases that appear every day in the news, so strict posts like this one are more than necessary.

    I think we should ask what recognition schemes are in our companies, as they may trigger additional risks. I think in a given situation, even though our actions may seem as incorrect or even morally questionable, if the reward is greater than the perceived harm can be generated, our performance may end up being at least arguable. Especially if we think about two axes: private gain against public detriment, and some tangible reward against undetermined injury, especially if it is difficult to assess.

  4. Very interesting article. I find the recipes to put in place very helpful and I totally agree with the statement that we are free to act but we should always remain accountable for our actions and behaviours.

    Thanks and regards

    1. Dear Doris

      I agree with you. The question is in many situations we may be affected by factors that – if not taking into account – may affect the way we behave. But I agree, we are free to act. The post tries to remark some issues to help us be more conscious when taking decisions and thus reducing the risk of acting differently than what we think we should. In todays world, the “noise” is so big sometimes, that we can get confused. There are some tools to help us in that process too¡¡ Thanks for your comment¡¡¡

  5. Excellent and interesting article!
    I really feel that Ethics in real world is very important. Ethical misconduct could lead to a disruption in your business dealings and pose a threat to your organization.

    It is also important to consider the impact that a nonperforming employee can have on the bottom line and reputation of the organization.

    I belive that there are no universally agreed rules of ethics, no absolute standards or controls, but in my opinion it is important. Although stories of business corruption crowd the news, there are many companies conducting ethical business every day.

    The question is what are the ways to promote ethical conduct for the making decision in your organization?

    1. Isaac

      Thanks for your comment¡¡¡And that is the big question. How do we make this work. Many potential things to think about. Purpose, people profile, incentives and promotion systems, culture supported , leadership style, tools put in place (ethical codes, ethical committees…) and their characteristics to reinforce the right behaviors, coaching your teams to avoid that they feel alone in difficult situations, avoiding very aggressive objectives, understanding where ethical issues may arise in advance etc…

      So this is a whole coherence effort that must be continuous (no discretional)

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