11 Jan 2008  Working Papers

See No Evil: When We Overlook Other People’s Unethical Behavior

Executive Summary — Even good people sometimes act unethically without their own awareness. This paper explores psychological processes as they affect the ethical perception of others' behavior, and concludes with implications for organizations. First, there is a tendency for people to overlook unethical behavior in others when recognizing such behavior would harm them. Second, people might readily ignore unethical behavior when others have an agent do their dirty work for them. Third, gradual moral decay leads people to grow comfortable with behavior to which they would otherwise object. Fourth, the tendency to value outcomes over processes can lead us to accept unethical processes for far too long. Key concepts include:

  • Most people value ethical decisions and behavior, and strive to be good. Yet psychological processes sometimes lead them to engage in questionable behaviors that are inconsistent with their own values and beliefs.
  • It is common to fail to notice or act on information when dealing with ethically relevant decisions.
  • Organizational leaders must understand these processes and make the structural changes necessary to reduce the harmful effects of human psychological and ethical limitations.

 

Author Abstract

It is common for people to be more critical of others' ethical choices than of their own. This chapter explores those remarkable circumstances in which people see no evil in others' unethical behavior. Specifically, we explore 1) the motivated tendency to overlook the unethical behavior of others when we recognize the unethical behavior would harm us, 2) the tendency to ignore unethical behavior unless it is clear, immediate, and direct, 3) the tendency to ignore unethical behavior when ethicality erodes slowly over time, and 4) the tendency to assess unethical behaviors only after the unethical behavior has resulted in a bad outcome, but not during the decision process.

Paper Information