This blog post is prompted by a brand new article with the intimidating title “Variance in Virtue: An Integrative Review of Intraindividual (Un)Ethical Behavior Research” by professors Perkins, Podsakoff and Welsh (“PPW”). The article addresses the eternal question that often concerns us here at Ethics Unwrapped: why do good people do bad things? Indeed, it also addresses the question of why bad people may do good things? For us, it calls to mind our videos about moral equilibrium (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-equilibrium).
This thoughtful article featuring a major literature review suggests that there are two prevailing paradigms for explaining why employees may act dishonestly. First is the “interindividual” paradigm, which seeks to explain why individuals generally act ethically (or unethically). It focuses on the subjects’ cognitive moral development, moral awareness, and moral characteristics, suggesting, for example, that individuals with low moral awareness will generally behave unethically. Certainly, there is something valuable to this approach, yet we all know people with good character and good intentions who have done bad things.
Second, the “interactionist” paradigm seeks to explain why employees commit a specific instance of ethical (or unethical) behavior. It focuses on the actors’ relationships to their relevant context, suggesting that people’s actions will be heavily influenced by the ethical leadership and ethical culture of their organizations. For example, a good person will be more likely to do bad things if trying to please an unethical boss (obedience to authority) or trying to get along with morally indifferent co-workers (conformity bias). This approach also obviously has much to recommend it in explaining people’s moral behavior.
In contrast to these two established models, PPW offer an “intraindividual” paradigm that seeks to explain why an individual’s behavior may vary over time. Why does the same person sometimes act ethically and sometimes unethically? This is an entirely “within-person” perspective, featuring theoretical concepts such as “moral balancing” (what we at Ethics Unwrapped call “moral equilibrium”).
We believe that most people keep a running mental moral scoreboard in their heads that constantly compares their vision of themselves (typically as a good person) with their actual conduct. If they do something that they know they shouldn’t, a deficit appears on their brain’s scoreboard and they may well seek an opportunity to do something good in order to restore equilibrium. We call this “moral compensation.” PPG call it “moral cleansing.”
If, on the other hand, people do something particularly good or perhaps receive an award for being a good citizen, this may create a surplus on their mental moral scoreboard and they may give themselves permission (license) to not live up to their usual moral standards (“just this once,” of course). They can stub their moral toe and deplete their moral surplus without going into deficit. We call this “moral licensing.” PPW use the same basic terminology, giving as an example of the intraindividual perspective: “[a]n individual who previously acted ethically feels licensed to subsequently act unethically.” The surplus on the mental moral scoreboard may arise from specific good acts the person has just done (“moral credits”) or a past record of good acts that act to cleanse subsequent immoral acts (“moral credentials”).
Moral compensation and moral licensing work together to constitute moral equilibrium.
PPW believe, accurately we think, that the intraindividual paradigm helps remedy a defect of the other two approaches in that, unlike them, it does not assume that employee behavior is relatively stable. Instead, it recognizes that idiosyncratic factors operating in individuals’ brains may cause them to act ethically in one situation, and unethically in another. Their “goodness” (or “badness”) may vary over time irrespective of their character or their interaction with their organizational environment. All of us may have difficulty appreciating how a decision that we made earlier may impact a moral decision that we must make now.
It would take several blog posts to provide a full and fair discussion of this article, but the major takeaway for us is that the human brain is terribly complicated and accounting for how and why it does the things it does in the realm of moral decision making is no easy matter. Moral identity (the importance of morality to one’s sense of identity) and character count. But they are often overwhelmed by interpersonal pressures like obedience to authority and the conformity bias, by cognitive biases such as the self-serving bias and the in-group bias, and by situational factors like stress and time pressure. All of these frequently interact, in different proportions depending upon the circumstances, to shape our moral choices.
While we may all have that moral mental scoreboard, the expectations we have for ourselves and our calculation of surpluses and deficits may be heavily influenced by the perceptions of those around us. We want to live up to our own expectations, but we are also concerned with our reputation in the eyes of others.
Incrementalism (the “slippery slope”) may lead us to adjust our expectations for our moral selves, leading to a decline in the number on our moral mental scoreboard that we feel we must maintain, and this obviously has meaningful implications for our moral choices.
Also, while there is much experimental support for the moral equilibrium phenomenon, some of the early experiments have failed to replicate in more recent attempts.
Other factors that might cause the same person to act morally one time and immorally another include depletion of “self-regulation”–the “intentional, conscious, and effortful capacity to control one’s own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors” (Johnson et al.). When people are working very hard at their jobs, especially as they apply themselves to complex and demanding tasks that required prolonged attention, they may deplete their stores of self-control. Studies show that employees with depleted self-control are more likely to cheat or misrepresent their performance and less likely to engage in pro-social behavior such as cooperating with or helping co-workers than they normally would.
A key focus of the article is a multi-stage model of moral self-regulation that incorporates elements of the interindividual, the interactionist, and the intraindividual paradigms.
There is much, much more in the PPW article. We recommend it to you if you’d like to take a deep dive into this area of behavioral ethics research.
Russell Johnson et al., “Self-Control as the Fuel for Effective Self-Regulation at Work: Antecedents, Consequences, and Boundary Conditions of Employee Self-Control,” Advances in Motivation Science 5: 87-128 (2018).
Joanna Lin et al., “When Ethical Leader Behavior Breaks Bad: How Ethical Leader Behavior Can Turn Abusive via Ego Depletion and Moral Licensing,” Journal of Applied Psychology 101(6): 815-830 (2016).
Jessica Methot et al., “Good Citizenship Interrupted: Calibrating a Temporal Theory of Citizenship Behavior,” Academy of Management Review 42(1): 10-31 (2017).
Elizabeth Mullen & Benoit Monin, “Consistency Versus Licensing Effects of Past Moral Behavior,” Annual Review of Psychology 67: 363-385 (2016).
Benjamin Perkins, Nathan Podsakoff & David Welsh, “Variance in Virtue: An Integrative Review of Intraindividual (Un)Ethical Behavior Research,” Academy of Management Annals (2023).
Amanda Rotella & Pat Barclay, “Failure to Replicate Moral Licensing and Moral Cleansing in an Online Experiment,” Personality and Individual Differences 161 (2020).
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias
In-group/Out-group Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-group-out-group
Moral Equilibrium (Concepts Unwrapped): https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-equilibrium
Moral Equilibrium (Glossary): https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/moral-equilibrium
Obedience to Authority: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority
Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias