Dan Ariely, who as you know is one of my favorite thought leaders in behavioral science, has been blogging a lot lately on the topics in his new book about lying and cheating.
His post today is a good exercise in introspection and understanding the real prevalence of lying. He asks his readers to think about the following questions. Not because the answers are important, but because it shows you how often you lie, cheat, steal, or are hypocritical. Just little things, but when you do them 100 times a day they really add up.
One of his conclusions is that we all do these things, but not so much that we question our self-image of ourselves as good people. Taking home a few paperclips from work is no big deal. But stealing five cases to sell on EBay is just not "who I am."
But here is where it gets interesting. When everyone is visibly and publicly taking home a few paperclips, we start to imagine that they are probably taking home a few other things as well. So if everyone is taking home a few other things, that must be normal working behavior. The company knows it and includes it in our salaries. So if I don't take some things home, I am really just giving back part of my salary. It is not me being a good and honest person at all. It is me being a sucker. And that is just not "who I am." So I better find something to take home.
I suspect that this phenomenon is largely what happened in the LIBOR fixing scandal. The fact that these people were sending explicit emails back and forth talking openly about what they were doing makes it clear that they weren't worried about the company or even law enforcement finding out. Some of them said that they wouldn't want it to be reported in the newspapers, but that could just be because the public just doesn't understand. But among bankers, it is acceptable behavior.
I really don't believe it was bankers knowing that it was wrong but doing it because everyone was doing it. I really think that the culture of self-image shifted so that this behavior really wasn't seen as being wrong at all. It was part of the game.