Why They Do It

I shared a list of books for budding behavioral ethicists a few weeks ago. Now I want to recommend to everyone that they read Harvard Law School professor Eugene Soltes’s new book: Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal (Public Affairs, 2016). Several years ago, Professor Soltes began studying many of the prominent white collar criminals of the few several decades—Bernie Madoff, Sam Waksal, Fabrice Tourre, Alan Stanford, Jeff Skilling, Dennis Kozloswki, Rajat Gupta, Marc Drier, Steven Garfinkel, and several others. He corresponded with most of these figures in an attempt to resolve the universal question—why good people do bad things. With the possible exception of Madoff, who is arguably a sociopath, most of these infamous public figures are not noticeably different in any significant way from the rest of us.

Therefore, an overarching lesson of this book, as well as of our Ethics Unwrapped videos with behavioral ethics themes is that “in our own small ways, we are [all] susceptible to making the same mistakes as these former executives.” (p. 9).

Social and organizational pressures, cognitive heuristics and biases, as well as situational factors tend to be the key reasons why good people do bad things. Such phenomena—which we have profiled in our Concepts Unwrapped videos—pop up over and over again in this book—overconfidence, the self-serving bias, moral myopia, ethical fading, incrementalism, rationalizations, framing, etc.

“The tangible and the abstract” plays a particular influential role, because Soltes finds that these white collar felons did not consciously choose to become criminals. In general, “[i]t wasn’t that these executives recognized that other people were going to be harmed and simply didn’t care. Rather, they never even stopped to consider that their actions would harm, even devastate, real people.” (p. 12) In other words, these people were busy trying to solve tangible, immediate business problems and did not have the moral imagination to consider the impact that their actions would have on other people who were more distant in time and place and therefore more abstract to the actors’ mind’s eye.

The good news from Soltes’s book, and a message that Ethics Unwrapped’s videos hope to convey, is that awareness that even good people must guard against these dangerous social, psychological and cognitive factors can help them do so and give them a better chance of being their best selves. As Soltes concludes:

“Appreciating our lack of invincibility—our inherent weakness and frailty–offers us the best chance of designing the appropriate mechanisms to help manage these limitations. If we learn to be more suspicious of our gut feelings when placed in new or difficult situations, we can acknowledge the need to create more opportunities for reflection and to bring in the viewpoints of others to question us. If we humbly recognize that we might not always even notice the choices that will lead us astray, we are more likely to develop ways to identify and control those decisions. But it’s only when we realize that our ability to err is much greater than we often think it is that we’ll begin to take the necessary steps to change and improve.” (pp. 329-330)


Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: Why We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves (2012).

Mahzarin R. Banaji & Anthony G. Greenwald, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People (2013).

Max Bazerman & Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It (2011).

Herbert C. Kelman & V. Lee Hamilton, Crimes of Obedience (1989).

Eugene Soltes, Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal (2016).

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