Self-Serving Altruism? When Unethical Actions That Benefit Others Do Not Trigger Guilt

by Francesca Gino, Shahar Ayal & Dan Ariely

Overview — Not a day goes by without the revelation of unethical behavior by a politician, movie star, professional athlete, or high-ranking executive. This paper asks: Is a person's willingness to cross ethical lines influenced by the presence of others who may benefit? Research by Francesca Gino, Shahar Ayal, and Dan Ariely. Findings show that cheating is motivated by potential benefits to others. The authors analyze the results of three experiments to suggest that the potential benefits which dishonesty may create for others not only help people justify their own bad behavior but also serve as a self-serving motivator for it. Focusing on the social utility of others, people more freely categorize their own actions in positive terms and avoid negative updating of their moral self-image. As a result, people feel less guilty about their dishonest behavior when others-in addition to themselves-can benefit from them. Among the implications: Team settings might be conducive to dishonest behavior among group members, and thus might not be ideal to foster learning. Key concepts include:

  • People cheat more when other individuals can benefit from their cheating.
  • Individuals also cheat more when the number of beneficiaries of wrongdoing is larger.
  • Individuals often resolve ethical dilemmas through creative reassessments and self-serving rationalizations. They think they can act dishonestly enough to profit from their unethicality, but honestly enough to maintain a positive self-concept.
  • Dishonesty should be studied not only at the individual level but also at the group level, where members can influence one another in their ethical as well as unethical behavior.

Author Abstract

In three experiments, we examine whether individuals cheat more when other individuals can benefit from their cheating (they do) and when the number of beneficiaries of wrongdoing is larger (they do). Our results indicate that people use moral flexibility in justifying their self-interested actions when such actions benefit others in addition to the self. Namely, our findings suggest that when others can benefit from one's dishonesty, people consider larger dishonesty as morally acceptable and thus can benefit from their cheating and simultaneously feel less guilty about it. We discuss the implications of these results for collaborations in the social realm.

Paper Information