Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?

When someone is tempted to behave or act in a way that goes against their sense of right and wrong there is a reward or gain that pulls them to that decision. It’s not always easy to see the reason behind someone’s bad actions because often there are a series of smaller unseen transgressions that precede any public accountability. So why do good people do bad things?

Imagine you’re spending the weekend at your friend’s house and while getting into bed you knock a book off the nightstand in the guest bedroom. The book slides beneath the bed and when you get on your hands and knees to retrieve it, you notice among the dust bunnies and a lost cat toy there is a crumpled dollar bill. When you pull it out you realize it’s a $50 bill. Do you assume the money was lost a long time ago by a previous guest of your friend? If it was, does that excuse pocketing the money for yourself?

Most people will rationalize taking an action that could be deemed as bad or unethical if it is perceived to cause no harm. Others believe this kind of justification leads to worse behavior. Once you compromise the code of ethics you have set for yourself in life just once, you are more likely to do it again and maybe cross the line a little further between what is good and what is bad behavior each time. By conditioning yourself with relatively small and insignificant “bad” acts, it will take a larger or more significant ethical dilemma to make you question your behavior in the future.

Consider an employee making a small adjustment in their favor on a monthly expense report before turning in to an employer for reimbursement. Maybe it started as a calculation error that no one picked up on, then escalated to deliberate alterations. If at some point the employee felt disgruntled with the company, maybe they excused the small deceit as receiving the compensation they were due. What if over time the theft became larger and larger?

The WorldCom whistleblower, Cynthia Cooper, whose team of auditors uncovered a $4 billion fraud once wrote that, “People do not wake up one day and say, ‘Today is the day I think I will start my life of crime.’ Instead, it is often a slippery slope, we slowly lose our ethical footing one step at a time.”

This process is what behavioral ethicists refer to as “incrementalism.” While not every person who does one small unethical thing, will slip into a life of increasingly bad behavior, it does explain why sometimes we are surprised to learn of someone we know and respect acting in a way that seems out of character and harmful. Incrementally worse behavior can apply to many situations.

Consider the casual drinker who has driven home from a night out on several occasions and made it home safely each time. This same person has a habit of leaving the house five minutes too late to get to work on time most mornings and therefore has developed a habit of driving over the speed limit. Now combine those two behaviors. It’s easy to see how a person who has convinced themselves that bending the rules is okay in some circumstances can end up in a situation of shame and regret.

Good people sometimes do bad things because they perceive the reward will outweigh the bad behavior, because they think the bad behavior will cause no harm and because being rewarded for previous less-significant bad behavior has conditioned them to misjudge how unethical the behavior might be.

Do you know good people who have done bad things? Have you been one of them?

Related Articles: When People Make Bad Choices

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