Why Honest People Do Dishonest Things

Posted on May 25, 2015

Photo: flickr

Every day we are bombarded with temptations - to cheat on our diets, to spend instead of save our paychecks, to tell little white lies. It can be exhausting to have to continually remind ourselves that, long-term, we want to be upstanding people, so we shouldn't make tempting but unethical short-term decisions. But what if simply thinking about dishonesty could make it easier for us to behave ethically?

This novel possibility comes from a set of studies published May 22 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which demonstrate that anticipating temptation decreases the likelihood of a person engaging in poor behavior.

In this set of studies, lead researcher Oliver Sheldon, a specialist in organizational behavior at Rutgers University, and co-author Ayelet Fishbach, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, set out to understand the factors that influence self-control in ethical decision-making. The results suggest "a potential solution to curb dishonesty," according to Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist at Harvard Business School who was not involved in the work.

Sheldon and Fishbach designed three experiments to investigate thoughts that occur to people just before they make an ethical decision. In each, they recorded the behavior of groups of participants during an exercise after the individuals were given different combinations of prompts designed to activate thoughts of either past temptation or social and moral integrity. "We predicted, and found, that such forewarning… helps people better prepare to proactively counteract the influence of impending ethical temptations on their behavior," Sheldon says.

Source material from Scientific American