Unethical Behavior: Psychological Traps That Everyone Falls Prey to

Robert Hoyk, PhD
Robert Hoyk, PhD

This last June, a study came out that demonstrated that professional ethicists, for example professors of ethics, do not behave any better than the general population.  How can this be? How can the experts have the same level of morality as everybody else?  Let me tell you why…

The study of ethics does a good job with its primary task—given different situations, it tells us what is the right thing to do.  The problem is, even if we know what the right behavior is, we often don’t do it.

Meet Jim
At the beginning of my career, I was employed in an outpatient clinic for drug addiction in which I led a weekly group. One of my clients, Jim, would rarely say anything. Jim was a bright, handsome man who had a good job in a hospital. One evening at the end of the group meeting when everyone had left, he came up to me and told his story. He said, “Dr. Hoyk, I have a hard time speaking up in the group.” As he spoke his voice wavered. “I get very anxious speaking in front of others — I’m really shy. I’m anxious even speaking to you now. But you know, when I shoot up, I love myself. I’m so confident. When I’m high, I can sit down on a public bench and lead a conversation with a total stranger for an hour. I love who I am.” Jim’s problem of chronic shyness disappeared when he used drugs. The dramatic, short-term benefits of the drug kept him coming back for more.  Jim knew what the right thing to do was.  He knew his addiction was destroying his life. He wanted to be sober. But he couldn’t stop himself.

So the experts of ethics are probably able to discern the right behaviors in different situations better than the average person, but they fall prey to the psychological paradigms that we all fall prey to.

The lesson here is that psychology needs to be integrated with business ethics. The study of ethics in business can continue its important task of telling us what we should be doing and psychology can help us stop our immoral behavior and motivate us to do the right thing. Moral decline will continue in corporate America until ethics is integrated with psychology.

Teaching the Teacher
Let me tell you a story that highlights how exquisite the science of psychology can be. Most people are familiar with BF Skinner; he developed a branch of psychology called Behaviorism. He was also the father of positive and negative reinforcement.  This is a true story:  Skinner was teaching a small class of graduate students at Harvard.  The students got together and decided they were going to change the behavior of BF Skinner using positive reinforcement and punishment.  When Skinner gave a lecture he would pace back and forth in front of the class from the left side of the room to the right side and then back again.  The students’ goal was to condition Skinner to stand on the left side of the room the whole time while he was lecturing.  So what did they do?  When Skinner moved to the right side of the room the students slumped in their chairs a bit, didn’t make eye contact with him and asked no questions.  As soon as Skinner began moving to the left side of the room the students sat up, made eye contact and asked questions.  In just two weeks they had the famous BF Skinner standing on the left side of the room while lecturing.  And Skinner was unaware of the whole process.

The psychology behind behavior and motivation can explain the nature of unethical behavior and often help structure the proper approach to avoiding or remediating transgressions.  You can learn more about simple ways to help yourself or others become more ethical in the book I co-authored: The Ethical Executive: Becoming Aware of the Root Causes of Unethical Behavior: 45 Psychological Traps that Every One of Us Fall Prey To, (Stanford University Press, 2008).

Robert Hoyk, PhD, is a clinical psychologist. He has conducted research in several institutions and has taught communication skills to executives, physicians, and couples. Read a more detailed article from Dr. Hoyk on the root causes of unethical behavior here.
Author of the article
Robert Hoyk, PhD
Robert Hoyk, PhD
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