I read a great paper last night from the October (yeah, I am on time with this one) issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Nicole Ruedy and some of her colleagues.
What I like most about this stream of research is that they start out with a dialectic hypothesis. Most research assumes the people feel bad when they do unethical things. People feel bad when they are anticipating doing something unethical, they feel bad when doing something unethical, and then they feel bad when thinking back on an unethical thing that they have done.
But they take what you all know is my favorite perspective – “it depends.” Sometimes, we don’t feel bad at all. They review a great deal of literature to demonstrate that this is not just sociopaths who have no bad feelings to have. They are talking about all of us. And they are not talking about the financial gain we get from some kinds of unethical activities. There are many kinds of unethical activities where we feel a “cheater’s high” or a “duper’s delight.” They want to know when, where, and most importantly, why.
And what they find is kind of a sad story about the human condition, but resonates with me and probably most of you. First, let’s define the context. If someone is going to get hurt, we don’t feel good about acting unethically. And if we feel forced into acting unethically, we don’t feel good about that either. But when we freely choose the behavior and when the only entity that gets hurt is some ambiguous corporation or society at large, there are many cases where we feel good acting unethically. They speculate that this a combination of the allure of the forbidden fruit, the dopamine rush of immediate gratification, the sense of mastery that we got around constraints or outthought an entrenched opponent on his home turf.
One of the strengths of the research is that they also looked for ways to explain the previous research where people do report feeling bad. Otherwise, they haven’t proved anything. They controlled for self-deception and confirmed that the people in their study knew full well they were acting unethically. But what they found is that we are very good at self-deception in other ways. When we are thinking about an unethical behavior in the future, we convince ourselves that we will feel bad if we do it. And then afterwards, we convince ourselves that we feel bad as a result of having done it. The cheater’s high that they talk about is the thrill of the moment – the only time we are really honest with ourselves. It is the people who claim to feel bad who are fooling themselves. This is the simple phenomenon of self-identity resonance that I have blogged about beforehttp://humanfactors.blogspot.com/2013/10/self-identity-resonance-motivated.html. We like to think of ourselves as good people, so we really do believe that we will feel bad if we do something unethical. And we really do misremember that we felt bad when we did it.
In fact, you are probably struggling with some self-identity resonance as you read this. You probably have at least half of your brain telling you that this research doesn’t apply to you. Perhaps other people experience cheater’s high during the unethical act and only feel remorse before and after. But not you. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. This doesn’t make you a bad person. You do feel bad if someone gets hurt. You just don’t feel bad if it is the proverbial victimless crime. You are human.
Or maybe this resonates with you right away. Perhaps you realize or have always realized that you feel this cheater’s high. Maybe now you don’t feel so bad because you realize that so does everyone else. Happy to be the bearer of good news for you.