In a new study, participants who anticipated a temptation to act unethically were less likely to give in to that temptation, compared to those who did not have the opportunity to think ahead.
The findings, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, may offer some insights into why some people succumb to ethical temptations rather than resist them.
“People often think that bad people do bad things and good people do good things, and that unethical behavior just comes down to character,” said lead research author Oliver Sheldon, Ph.D.
“But most people behave dishonestly sometimes, and frequently, this may have more to do with the situation and how people view their own unethical behavior than character, per se.”
In a series of experiments, participants who were prepared for a future temptation were less likely to give in, compared to those who did not prepare. These participants also were less likely to support unethical behavior that offered short-term satisfaction, such as stealing office supplies or illegally downloading copyrighted material.
“Self-control, or a lack thereof, may be one factor which explains why good people occasionally do bad things,” said Sheldon, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Rutgers University.
In one experiment, 196 business-school students were divided into pairs: one person was the “buyer” and the other was a “seller” of historic homes. Before the negotiation exercise, half of the group discussed ethical temptations; they wrote about a time in their lives when bending the rules was useful, at least in the short term, while the control group wrote about a time when having a back-up plan helped.
The sellers were told that the property should only be sold to a buyer who would preserve the historic homes and not destroy them for a new development. However, the buyers were told that their client planned to demolish the homes and build a high-rise hotel, but they were ordered to conceal that information from the seller.
The findings showed that more than two-thirds of the buyers (67 percent) in the control group lied about the hotel plans so they could close the deal, compared to less than half (45 percent) of the buyers who had been reminded about temptation in the writing exercise.
Anticipating temptation may only help, however, if people think the unethical act has the potential to harm their self-image, integrity, or reputation.
In a second experiment with 75 college students, participants were instructed to flip a coin that was labeled “SHORT” or “LONG” several times to determine whether they had to proofread short or long passages of text for spelling and grammatical errors.
The participants were split into two groups who completed the same writing exercise as the first experiment (recalling unethical behavior or a back-up plan).
Additionally, half of the participants were told that a person’s values, life goals, and personality are stable, while the other group was told that those traits can change dramatically even within a few months’ time. This information was intended to affect whether participants would view their behavior in task as consistent or not with who they would be in the future.
Participants who were encouraged to anticipate temptation and were told their behavior was consistent with their future self, were honest: They reported short coin flips that didn’t differ from chance.
On the other hand, those not encouraged to anticipate temptation and/or who believed that their behavior was inconsistent with their future self, were more likely to lie about the number of short coin flips so they would have less work to do.
If a person wants to avoid unethical behavior, it may be helpful to anticipate potential temptations and consider how acting upon these temptations fits with long-term goals or beliefs about one’s morality.
“You may not be concerned about getting caught or about your reputation if people found out, but you might be concerned about your own ethical self-image,” Sheldon said.
“Keeping such considerations in mind as one enters into potentially tempting situations can help people resist the temptation to behave unethically.”