Displaying behaviors viewed as uncharacteristically “bad” may stem from many reasons, including a lack of self-awareness. But this doesn’t always define who a person is.
The human condition is one of imperfection. Everyone faces their own challenges, makes mistakes, has an error in judgment, or says something they regret after the fact. These moments don’t make you a “bad” person, they simply make you human.
Being labeled as “good” or “bad” often comes from how others view your long-standing patterns of behavior and personality. If you typically act with kindness, compassion, and fair judgment, for example, you may be perceived as “good.”
Being “good,” however, doesn’t mean someone can’t or won’t do bad things. By understanding why good people do bad things, you’re cultivating your own traits of goodness, like empathy and compassion.
1. Past traumas and adverse life events
The past is a powerful dictator of how you act in the present — even if you aren’t aware of it.
Dr. Rod Mitchell, a psychologist from Calgary, Alberta, indicates, “Good people might act harmfully when triggered by unresolved traumas. Like a shadow from the past, these traumas can momentarily eclipse their inherent human kindness.”
Trauma and adverse life events impact everyone differently, and for some people, the effects can lead them to make bad decisions.
For example, childhood trauma can result in insecure attachment in adulthood. Insecure attachment may lead to validation-seeking that develops into an online affair.
Or, having experienced starvation in the past might make you steal and stockpile food from local stores.
In both scenarios, the intention is not to harm others. The behaviors stem from unresolved negative experiences and feelings from the past.
2. Survival mode
Survival mode, when you feel you’re backed into a corner, is another reason why good people do bad things, according to Dr. David Tan, a child and forensic psychiatrist from Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.
An example would be if you lost your job and were facing major financial hardships, like the loss of your home. Feelings of desperation, overwhelming stress, and pressure to provide for your family might make you consider unethical options like fraud or theft.
3. The need to belong
“One reason why good people may sometimes do bad things is due to societal pressure or influence,” says Lindsey Tong, a licensed clinical social worker from Woodland Hills, California. “The innate desire to fit in and feel accepted can lead someone to act against their better judgment.”
She gives the example of engaging in harmful gossip about a co-worker even when you know it’s not right.
“This behavior doesn’t make them inherently bad, but highlights how external influences can sway even the most well-intentioned individuals,” she says.
4. Lack of self-awareness
In-the-moment recognition of your feelings and your position in the world around you is known as self-awareness. According to Tong, it’s often a factor in why good people sometimes do bad things
“When someone isn’t in tune with their own emotions or values, they may unintentionally act in a way that goes against their beliefs,” she says. “This can happen when someone is under stress or feeling overwhelmed and doesn’t take the time to reflect on their actions.”
An example, says Tong, would be saying hurtful things during an argument because you’re too caught up in your own feelings of hurt and frustration. Rather than acknowledging those feelings in yourself, you end up projecting that pain onto someone else.
5. The greater good
“The end justifies the means” is a saying derived from the literary works of Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. It implies that a positive result merits any negative action necessary to achieve it.
This sense of control, says Mitchell, is another reason why good people do bad things.
“Sometimes, good people take actions they believe are for the ‘greater good’, not realizing the harmful consequences,” he says. “This misjudgment stems from an overestimation of their ability to control or predict outcomes.”
An example would be going to extreme lengths of civil disobedience, like damaging property, to draw attention to urgent societal issues, like climate change.
6. Misguided justice
When you feel you’ve been wronged, retaliation in an equally negative manner can feel justified. You didn’t start the interaction; you’re just responding in kind, right?
“We may do bad things when we’ve justified certain actions as being the right thing to do but for misguided and twisted motivations, like when someone decides to retaliate for some perceived slight or offense,” says Tan.
An example would be cheating on your significant other in retaliation for finding out they had been unfaithful.
7. Mental health disorders
Living with certain mental health disorders can affect how you view the world and how you interact with others. Conditions like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), for example, naturally feature low empathy; the ability to relate to the feelings and thoughts of others.
“There are some folks with certain types of personality disorders that might increase their tendencies to think in these sorts of ways but it doesn’t necessarily make them ‘bad,’” says Tan.
Other conditions, like depressive disorders and anxiety disorders, can cause changes in your behavior that may be seen by others as negative. Sleeping through commitments and neglecting responsibilities in major depressive disorder (MDD), for example, is one way symptoms can come off as “bad” behaviors.
When someone you’ve viewed as “good” does something considered bad, it can shake your perception of them to the core. Because you’ve only seen them in a positive light, knowing they’ve done something negative can make you wonder if you ever knew them at all.
But doing something bad doesn’t automatically make someone a bad person. It doesn’t always speak to some hidden nature or deliberate desire to be deceitful or hurtful. Often, it’s a sign that a person is experiencing inner turmoil.
“I don’t think anyone is inherently bad but clearly people can and do act badly,” explains Tan. “People are complicated and we are all capable of doing the wrong thing — sometimes for the right reasons. Of course, it’s equally true that sometimes we do the right things for the wrong reasons.”
What traits indicate human goodness remains a topic of debate. “Good” and “bad” are subjective descriptions, meaning they’re based on individual perception.
Tong, Mitchell, and Tan all agree, however, that kindness, compassion, and empathy top the list. These traits, along with others like courage and self-agency, mold the long-standing patterns of behavior associated with being “good.”
“These individuals create positive relationships by being understanding and kind,” states Mitchell. “They don’t just avoid harming others but also work to support and uplift those around them. This approach to being ‘good’ is about actively contributing to the community’s health and happiness.”
Long-standing patterns of behavior are how society defines a “good” or “bad” person, but all people are capable of positive and negative actions.
Sometimes people viewed as “good” do bad things. They make mistakes, act without thinking, and react in ways dictated by past experiences.
Empathy, kindness, and compassion are common traits seen among people under the banner of “good.” Understanding that good people sometimes do bad things can help you improve those traits in yourself.