Why We Aren’t as Ethical as We Think We Are: A Temporal Explanation
Executive Summary — People commonly predict that they will behave more ethically in the future than they actually do. When evaluating past (un)ethical behavior, they also believe they behaved more ethically than they actually did. These misperceptions, both of prediction and of recollection, have important ramifications for the distinction between how ethical we think we are and how ethical we really are, as well as understanding how such misperceptions are perpetuated over time. This paper draws on recent research in psychology and decision-making to gain insight into these forces. It also provides recommendations for reducing them. Key concepts include:
- All individuals have an innate tendency to engage in self-deception around their own ethical behavior.
- Organizations worried about ethics violations should pay attention to understanding these psychological processes at the individual level rather than focus solely on the creation of formal training programs and education around ethics codes.
This paper explores the biased perceptions that people hold of their own ethicality. We argue that the temporal trichotomy of prediction, action and evaluation is central to these misperceptions: People predict that they will behave more ethically than they actually do, and when evaluating past (un)ethical behavior, they believe they behaved more ethically than they actually did. We use the want/should theoretical framework to explain the bounded ethicality that arises from these temporal inconsistencies, positing that the "should" self dominates during the prediction and evaluation phases but that the "want" self is dominant during the critical action phase. We draw on the research on behavioral forecasting, ethical fading, and cognitive distortions to gain insight into the forces driving these faulty perceptions and, noting how these misperceptions can lead to continued unethical behavior, we provide recommendations for how to reduce them.