We always say, “If people were just nicer to each other the world would be a very different place.” But when we say nicer are we really just referring to behaving in a way that is honest? We all aspire to be good people, but thinking good thoughts and acting in accordance with them are two separate things. Think about the last time you wanted to call in sick to work and weren’t really ill, or were involved in a home sale and tweaked the negations in your favour. How did you actually come up with the decision? These common ethical dilemmas appear in every facet of our lives, from personal to professional to political. It’s no surprise that unethical behaviour is widespread in our society, as acting dishonestly sometimes “gets you ahead.” There are two factors, according to a brand new study published in the Personality and Social Bulletin, that promote ethical decision making.

Remember That Last Time…

A study, done by Behavioural and Marketing Professor Ayelet Fishback from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Behavioural Science and Rutgers Business School Assistant Professor Oliver J. Sheldon, subjected participants to a mock negotiation in one of the social experiments. Business school students were divided into pairs as brokers for the buying and selling of a historic New York property. The seller wanted to preserve the property while the buyer wanted to tear it down and build a hotel. Neither were allowed to disclose their real interests to the other. They asked half the participants to think about a time in the past when they cheated or bent the rules to get ahead before going into negotiations. Doing this resulted in only 45% of those students to behave unethically in the negotiations. Conversely, when students were not reminded of their past ethical behaviour, 67% of them lied to close the deal. (source)

Aware Of The Temptation

Pre-emptively exercising self-control is especially useful for things like dieting or relationship issues. Fishback and Sheldon found that when someone is aware of a potential temptation, like those donuts at tomorrow’s team meeting or over-spending on a trip, people are less likely to engage in the behaviour. Participants were less likely to say it was OK to steal office supplies or work slowly to avoid additional tasks when they anticipated an ethical dilemma through a writing exercise considering 6 dilemmas all at once.
Falling off the ethical train, whether it be honouring a promise or fulfilling tasks to our best ability, can be seen through an awareness scope. It seems we are more likely to engage in unethical acts if we think the behaviour is an isolated one and don’t really think about it ahead of time. It’s an interesting thought, and suggests a pattern for how we currently justify making certain decisions. Ethical studies like these help us understand why we do the things we do and encourage us to behave in a way that is more self aware. Not sure what to do? Try recalling a similar event in the past or anticipate the temptation in the future.

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