• 19 Feb 2009
  • Working Paper

Dishonest Deed, Clear Conscience: Self-Preservation through Moral Disengagement and Motivated Forgetting

by Lisa L. Shu, Francesca Gino & Max H. Bazerman

Executive Summary — Why do people engage in unethical behavior repeatedly over time? In Everybody Does It! (1994), Thomas Gabor documents the pervasive immorality of ordinary people. Challenging the stereotype that only criminals violate the law, Gabor describes the numerous transgressions of everyday life and suggests that the excuses people make for their dishonest behavior parallel the justifications criminals make for their crimes. This common tendency of people to justify and distance themselves from their unethical behavior has captured the attention of several psychologists, and a long stream of research has documented differences in the way people think about their own ethical behavior and that of others. Harvard Business School's Lisa Shu and Max Bazerman, with colleague Francesca Gino, show that seemingly innocuous aspects of the environment can promote the decision to act ethically or unethically. Key concepts include:

  • Once people behave dishonestly, they are able to morally disengage, setting off a downward spiral of future bad behavior and ever more lenient moral codes.
  • However, this slippery slope can be forestalled with simple measures, such as honor codes, that increase people's awareness of ethical standards.
  • Moral disengagement is not always a necessary condition leading to dishonesty, but it may in fact result from unethical behavior.
  • The decision to behave dishonestly changes levels of moral disengagement, and the awareness of ethical standards affects the decision to engage in unethical behavior.

Author Abstract

People routinely engage in dishonest acts without feeling guilty about their behavior. When and why does this occur? Across three studies, people justified their dishonest deeds through moral disengagement and exhibited motivated forgetting of information that might otherwise limit their dishonesty. Using hypothetical scenarios (Study 1) and real tasks involving the opportunity to cheat (Studies 2 and 3), we find that dishonest behavior increased moral disengagement and motivated forgetting of moral rules. Such changes did not occur in the case of honest behavior or consideration of the behavior of others. In addition, increasing moral saliency by having participants read or sign an honor code significantly reduced or eliminated unethical behavior. While dishonest behavior motivated moral leniency and led to strategic forgetting of moral rules, honest behavior motivated moral stringency and diligent recollection of moral rules.

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