Fooling Ourselves to Make it Easier to Cheat

Leadership always involves ethical challenges: should I do the right thing or should I see what I can get away with to better my own outcomes? These are age-old dilemmas that appeared when we were kids – and they always hound us, regardless of our age or maturity. In fact, some of our own research on greed indicates that we all experience greed, to various degrees. As a result, we are always subject to temptation and it is only the exercise of our better selves that keeps us on the straight and narrow.

This exercise, however, takes real effort. Here’s why I say that. My colleague, Daniel Effron, who is currently a postdoc at Kellogg in our Dispute Resolution Research Center, has been doing some fascinating research that documents how creative people can be – and how easy it can be – when they are tempted to do something unethical and need to somehow justify their actions. He builds off a bunch of research which shows that, for everyone but psychopaths and sociopaths, being a moral person is not only desirable, but a central part of almost all of our identities.

The problem with sustaining this moral identity, however, is temptation. As noted, we all face temptation, and it’s not unusual, e.g., whether to cut a corner here or there to be able to display a better bottom line or to hire our friends even though other people are more qualified. Daniel’s research shows that people are really good at providing a platform of evidence to justify acting selfishly or engaging in other less-than-ethical acts.

Daniel got his PhD in the psych department at Stanford, where he worked with Professors Dale Miller and Benoit Monin. His research builds on their classic work on moral licensing, i.e., how people display or point to times when they were virtuous to justify being something less than virtuous now. In one of Daniel’s early papers, for instance, he showed that an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election made his supporters more likely to express views that favored Whites at the expense of African-Americans. Essentially, the endorsement made people feel like they had shown that they were not biased, giving them a license to express racially problematic views..

Daniel’s more recent work reveals a variety of fascinating but frightening tendencies in people who are facing temptation. First, people who have been unkind to someone else in a negotiation that could become cooperative or competitive justify their actions by suggesting that they were only pre-empting the other person’s competitive behavior. This sure seems convenient, no?

Second, people who are tempted to act badly simply need to think of a time when they were good to reinforce their positive feelings about themselves, which then gives them the opportunity to do something less-than-positive and not feel bad about it. Behaviors that seemed unremarkable at the time (“I nodded hello to a homeless person – no big deal”) allow people to feel good enough about themselves (“smiling at the homeless person shows what a kind and sensitive individual I am!”) to do something ethically questionable. In Daniel’s terms, people seem pretty darn good at making mountains of morality out of molehills of virtue.

Third, and most frightening of all, his research shows that people don’t even need to do anything at all to justify their subsequent, non-virtuous action. Instead, all they need to do is think about how they could have done something even worse! This allows them to say to themselves, “So what I’m doing here is really not so bad after all.” And when people haven’t actually had any opportunities to do anything worse, they’ll distort their memories to convince themselves that they did have these opportunities. This mental trickery is probably familiar to dieters, who might justify eating cake for dinner by patting themselves on the back for not gorging on cookies for lunch – even if no cookies were available at lunch. Thus, many people who are faced with temptation seem able to not just make moral mountains out of molehills – they also seem willing to fabricate these molehills.

Why is this so scary? Well, all of us have done good things in our lives, and it is not hard to remember them. This allows us to justify all sorts of bad behavior. But it also seems that we don’t even need to have done anything good – thus, even a sociopath with the simplest of imaginations should be able to justify bad behavior.

Ann Tenbrunsel and Max Bazerman’s recent book, Blind Spots, makes a great case for the idea that all of us can fail to see how we so easily and inappropriately find ways to justify our less than wonderful actions. Daniel’s research adds several neat and scary observations that make the case even clearer.

The moral of this moral story: look within, you knave – you could be the root of your own evil. But you can fight it if you try. I hope you do.


Bazerman, M. H.& Tenbrunsel, A. E. Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It. Princeton, 2011.

Effron, D. A., Cameron, J. S., & Monin, B. (2009). Endorsing Obama licenses favoring Whites. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 590-593.

Effron, D. A., Miller, D. T., & Monin, B. (forthcoming). Inventing racist roads not taken: The licensing effect of immoral counterfactual behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychobgy.

Merritt, A. M., Effron, D. A., & Monin, B. (2010). Moral self-licensing: When being good frees us to be bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 344-357.

Monin, B., & Miller, D. T. (2001). Moral credentials and the expression of prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 33-43.

Wang, L. & Murnighan, J. K. (2011). On greed. In Walsh, J. P. & Brief, A. P., (Eds.), The Academy of Management Annals, Volume 5, 279-316.



3 thoughts on “Fooling Ourselves to Make it Easier to Cheat

  1. Great post, Keith. I’d prefer to respond by saying, “I know people who do what you’re talking about!”. The problem is, I am that person. Upon reflection, I recognize my own self-rationalization too clearly in what you present here. The challenge, I suppose, is to recognize the pattern in the moment. Denial is such a powerful force and I am a master at confirming my own biases that cloud the reality of the situation. Any insights on catching ourselves in the deception would be great! But in the meantime, I’m going to go smile at my kids and pretend I’m the best dad in the world! 🙂

    Posted by Andy Kaufman | August 8, 2012, 1:25 pm
  2. Interesting writeup. Thank you for sharing. It is certainly clear that we are all sinful and broken and we need help. (Romans 3:23, John 3:16)

    Posted by Kyle | August 30, 2012, 12:41 am
  3. The conundrum is defining Moral behavior. It is very difficult to define. One version is religious, but even there, morality is shifted constantly. One version is social, morality is that which supports the continuation of society and immoral is that which works against the continuation of society. (amoral is that which doesn’t affect society). It gets even worse when ethical behavior is added to the mix. It is possible to have ethical behavior that isn’t moral and vice versa. Situational ethicists are great at making these quandries. Is it ethical and moral for a person to kill a mass murderer?

    Posted by Tim Dibble | May 30, 2014, 1:19 pm

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Do Nothing by J. Keith Murnighan

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