Good people have done bad things since the beginning of the human race, and the methods by which people make ethical decisions have been debated and analyzed for centuries. Now, a group of researchers believe they have uncovered the reasons underlying decision-making when people resist – or give into – temptation.

The Society for Personality and Social Psychology published the results of a new study in ethical decision-making and how people respond to temptation.

A group of 196 students in business school were divided into pairs, acting as buyers and sellers of historic properties. The participants in the control group were asked to write about a time in their life when unethical behavior resulted in a personal benefit, while subjects in the control group wrote about an experience in which forming a backup plan was beneficial.

The "buyers" were informed that their clients intended to destroy the property for sale in order to construct a massive hotel. The "sellers" were in turn instructed to only sell the property to a buyer who promised to keep the property in its current form.

The researchers found that people who were reminded of temptation were more likely to resist selling the property than those who had no reminder of ethical dilemmas. Only 45 percent of the buyers who wrote about temptation prior to the exercise completed the sale — compared with 67 percent of those in the control group.

"People often think that bad people do bad things and good people do good things, and that unethical behavior just comes down to character. But most people behave dishonestly sometimes, and frequently, this may have more to do with the situation and how people view their own unethical behavior than character, per se," said lead researcher Oliver Sheldon of Rutgers University.

A second experiment examined 75 college students, asking subjects to flip coins to determine if they had to proofread long or short examples of text. One pair of groups carried out a similar exercise to the first group, writing about unethical behavior and backup plans. Two other groups were respectively told that personality and behavior remain largely constant through life, and that those traits were subject to change.

This experiment was designed to test whether expectations of the future play into such decision making. Those who believed they would continue to be honest in the future were more likely to report the results of coin flips honestly, while those who saw little future for honest behavior recorded a greater number of coin tosses calling for short periods of work.

A third experiment, conducted online, found respondents were more likely to engage in unethical behavior when the act was seen as a onetime event.

The researchers stated that employers wanting to encourage good behavior could do so by warning employees beforehand not to partake in a coming temptation.

This research into the reasoning behind unethical decision making was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Photo: Brianna Privett | Flickr

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