Happy Ethical Holidays!

In his recent book “Drunk Tank Pink,” marketing professor Adam Alter demonstrates how color affects many peoples’ decisions and actions in ways they do not realize or understand.  A famous study shows, for example, that men arrested for public intoxication tend to be much less combative if confined in rooms painted pink than in rooms painted other colors.

While the red and green of the holiday season do not tend to cause us to act unethically, many other subtle factors are at play that can lead the holiday season to be the season in which we fail to live up to our own ethical values.  Let me mention just a few.

Tired?  I don’t know about you, but trying to juggle simultaneously all the work that needs to get done by the end of the year along with all the holiday social functions and the shopping (that I haven’t started) can leave me exhausted.  It takes energy and self-control to resist temptation and do the right thing.  Studies show that people are more vulnerable to acting unethically in the afternoon than in the morning for the simple reason that they are more tired.  It is a simple but not obvious fact that the exhaustion we may feel during the holiday season leaves us more vulnerable to ethical failure.

Feeling time pressured?  That’s another factor the holiday season throws at us.  How in the world are we going to get everything done by the deadlines we face?  A famous study found that when seminary students who were sent across campus to give a talk to a parent group about the parable of the Good Samaritan happened to run into someone in need of help along the way (a confederate of the experimenters lying by the sidewalk in apparent distress), they almost always stopped to help…if they were not in a hurry.  But if put under moderate time pressure, only 63% stopped to help.  If put under acute time pressure (“You’d better hurry over there!  They’re waiting on you!”), only 10% stopped to help.  It is unlikely that any of the seminarians were aware of how the time pressure caused them to depart from their own ethical standards, but it certainly did.  And time pressure exerted by the holiday season can do the same to us, if we are not careful.

Framing and Ethical Fading.  How we look at decisions, how we “frame” them, can substantially affect the decisions we make.  Many of us work in fields where year-end bonuses are an important part of annual compensation.  If we focus too much upon hitting sales quotas or other targets necessary to earn these bonuses, studies show that ethical aspects of the decisions we face may fade into the background and we can ignore them.  In this way, we may make unethical decisions without even realizing it.

Money, money, moneyStudies show that people primed to think about money tend to be less generous, less cooperative, less social, and less ethical than people not so primed.  Unfortunately, the holiday season can prompt many of us to think about money as (a) we try to figure out how we are going to pay for all of our holiday shopping we think we need to do, and (b) many of us think about those year-end bonuses mentioned earlier.    

Moral license.  I can already hear you protesting!  This is the season of giving!  Look how generous I’ve been!  I’ve given presents to my friends and family!  And I’ve made my year-end donations to charity (after appropriate consultation with my tax accountant, of course).  Unfortunately, studies show that most of us think of ourselves as good people and we keep a sort of running scoreboard in our head that compares our self-image with our behavior.  We’d like to keep the two somewhat in sync, a process called moral equilibrium.  What that means, in part, is that if we find ourselves doing something that we know we really shouldn’t, our scoreboard is in deficit and we will tend to look for opportunities to do ethical things (like volunteer or give to charity), so that we can put things back in balance.  This part of moral equilibrium is called moral compensation.  Unfortunately, after we’ve done something good, like make a donation to charity, we often view ourselves as having a nice surplus on our internal moral scoreboard and then we may well give ourselves permission to fail to live up to our own standards.  This other side of moral compensation, called moral licensing, may be especially dangerous during the holiday season.

Remember, it’s not only the calorie-laden holiday meals that are laying traps for you and your self-control.  Many features of the holiday season itself can present ethical landmines that we will step on if we are not careful.



Adam Alter, Drunk Tank Pink (2013)

John M. Darley & C. Daniel Batson, «From Jerusalem to Jericho«: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior,» 27 Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 100 (1973)

Maryam Kouchakil & Isaac H. Smith, “The Morning Morality Effect: The Influence of Time of Day on Unethical Behavior,” Psychological Science, Oct. 28, 2013

Robert A. Prentice, “Moral Equilibrium: Stock Brokers and the Limits of Disclosure,” 2011 Wisconsin Law Review 1059 (2011)

Ann E. Tenbrunsel & David M. Messick, “Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior”, 17 Social Justice Research. 223 (2004)