Ethics: Why do we misbehave?

Why Do We Misbehave?

Few people set out to intentionally disgrace themselves, incur fines or jail sentences, get fired, or be censured by their colleagues and industry.

So, why do we misbehave?

A complicated array of internal and external factors contributes to our decisions to act ethically or not. As a consulting psychologist for over thirty years, I’ve found that people misbehave for altruistic reasons, and in response to “delicious temptations.”

Consider four altruistic reasons and four seductive motivators for unethical behavior. Then, consider internal and external factors that make us vulnerable to unethical choices and behavior.


Good people sometimes lose jobs, go to jail, pay fines, face financial ruin, and destroy their reputations by “helping” someone in need. One way to combat this generous impulse is to ask yourself, “Will this course of action wrong anyone? Is it something I can shout proudly about to the world? Is this going to make the recipient of my goodwill a better, stronger person, or does it just bail them out of their own poor planning and weak choices?”

If these questions fail to inform your decision to “help” someone in questionable ways; ask yourself, “Would I even consider asking anyone to do this for me?” Overly kind, generous people who can’t resist helping others are not likely to even consider asking others for the same favors.

Four altruistic, unethical favors are common to good people:

1. Cutting corners
2. Turning a blind eye
3. Hiding the truth for or from others
4. Giving overly generous or false feedback

Delicious Temptations: The Big Four

Enticed by lucrative fees and fame, and shaken by pressure to succeed, speakers are sometimes motivated to overlook ethical values. “Delicious temptations” contribute to slippery thinking and unethical behavior. Ethicist George S. May said it best: We act unethically due to:

1. Greed
2. Speed
3. Laziness
4. Haziness

Whether motivated by altruism or temptation, truth and trust are destroyed when we behave unethically.

What Makes Us Vulnerable to Unethical Behavior?

“Because we have an image (simulacrum) of ourselves as fair, objective, practical, and humane, we actually make it more difficult for ourselves to be what we think we are.” —Thomas Merton

Ethical choices and behavior are complicated. Consider some factors that influence our choices.

Internal Factors

  • Feelings. Anger, hunger, desperation, anxiety, frustration, fatigue
  • Entitlement. “Why not me? I deserve this more than the other person?” “I’m special. Why should the rules apply to me?” “Why shouldn’t we hold this person accountable? Are they special?”
  • Culture. Internalized family values, neighborhood, workplace cultures, faith communities
  • Mind Games. We can convince ourselves of many things that aren’t true Bitterness “They owe me.” “Why am I getting blamed for this? It’s not fair!” “It’s time for payback!”

External Factors

  • Pressure. Social, emotional, financial, being helpful, being needed
  • Opportunity. Isolation, privacy, independence, poor security controls
  • Culture. Culture of acceptance in family, neighborhood, workplace, associations
  • Finances. Desperation, shame, financial distress can misdirect our values and commitments



So often, our ethics go unspoken and unwritten. It’s a good day to think and write!
On the following pages, list your top three guiding business values or ethical principles. Rate how you are doing at achieving each of them with 5 being “the best I can do,” and 1 being, “it’s a work in progress.”

  • What are your obligations with regard to each value?
  • What is the consequence of poorly resolved ethical conflict for each value?

      Value                     Rank                            Obligation                                          Consequence


Ask Yourself: “How did I do today with my ethical practices?

To be ethical, we must continually be self-aware. This exercise is a good place to start. Identifying
our values or what we think they are is a crucial first step in self-awareness. We must ask ourselves questions each day like these posed by Thomas Shanks, SJ, PhD. (Shanks, Thomas, PhD. Everyday Ethics. Markala Center for Applied Ethics. Published in Issues in Ethics.

1. Did I practice my values?
2. Did I do more good than harm?
3. Did I treat others with dignity and respect?
4. Was I fair and just?
5. Was my community better because I was in it? Was I better because I was in my community?


Ethical practices come from sound decision-making processes. The most heart-wrenching and wallet-draining business mis-steps can be avoided, identified, and solved. I found this Ethical Decision-Making Worksheet and adapted with Dr. Mitch Handelsman’s permission, the Ethical Professor and a fine trumpet player. Handelsman, M. M. (1998). Ethics and Ethical Reasoning. In S. Cullari (Ed.), Foundations of Clinical Psychology (pp. 80-111). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Tentatively state the problem or policy to be developed.

1. What are the relevant facts of the case?
a. What empirical questions are involved?
b. What facts might not be relevant?

2. To whom are we obligated?

a. The general public, institutions, professions?
b. Who is our client?

3. What sources of guidance are available?

a. Professional codes of ethics
b. Laws and regulations

4. Which ethical principles are relevant?

a. How?
b. What are the rights of the parties involved?

5. Restate the problem in terms of its ethical issues.

6. What are the alternative courses of action or alternative policies?

7. What are the consequences of each of these?

a. Long and short-term consequences.
b. Benefits and risks
c. What are the probabilities of these consequences?

8. Is each of these possible actions morally consistent?

a. Would we choose this option if positions were reversed?
b. What would the decision be if there were no laws?
c. What if all actions lead to equally good outcomes?

9. What facts would have to change for our decision to change?

10. How might our values be influencing our deliberations?

a. Can the consequences be valued differently?
b. Which facts of the case may be disguised values?
c. What are my personal motivations?
d. How might I benefit personally or professionally from the alternative courses of action?
e. Which courses of action will actualize my highest ethical values?

Finally, the most important part of any ethical practice is to keep asking ourselves and honorable colleagues these questions. Ethics, at there best, are responsive to changes times and circumstances.

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