Do-Gooders Can Become The Worst Of Cheaters

I haven't gotten to the actual research paper yet, but this
is sufficiently interesting that I wanted to put up a quick post about
it.  Live Science has an article about some research, showing
that persons who think of themselves as righteous are, in some
circumstances, the most likely to cheat.

Hypocrisy Rooted in High Morals

By Jeanna Bryner, LiveScience Staff Writer

posted: 14 November 2007 08:04 am ET

Morally upstanding people are the
do-gooders of society, right? Actually, a new study finds that a sense
of moral superiority can lead to unethical acts, such as cheating. In
fact, some of the best do-gooders can become the worst cheats.

Stop us if this sounds familiar.

OK, I'll stop you.  It does sound familiar.  

In the new study, detailed in the November
issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers find that when
this line between right and wrong is ambiguous among people who think
of themselves as having high moral standards, the do-gooders can become
the worst of cheaters.

The results recall the seeming disconnect between the
words and actions of folks like televangelist and fraud convict Jim
Bakker or admitted meth-buyer Ted Haggard, former president of the
National Evangelical Association, an umbrella group representing some
45,000 churches.

"The principle we uncovered is that when faced with a
moral decision, those with a strong moral identity choose their fate
(for good or for bad) and then the moral identity drives them to pursue
that fate to the extreme," said researcher Scott Reynolds of the
University of Washington Business School in Seattle. "So it makes sense
that this principle would help explain what makes the greatest of
saints and the foulest of hypocrites."

Is there any way for a person to know, objectively, if he or she is
ethical, by pure introspection?

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Well, why not use the available real experiment?

Someone could pressing the Weblog Awards people to reveal the actual total number of cheaters they found on the Science Blog tally (IP numbers that voted more than the allowed once in 24 hours, using the known flaw in the interface software, or voted after the polls closed)?

There's an experiment in real time, and the ability to contact the individuals who cheated and do a followup and inquire about their personal, introspective, moral and ethical standards.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 15 Nov 2007 #permalink

I don't find this particularly surprising. Apart from the rare bona fide sociopath, a person who is really, really nasty will have to construct a really, really ethical persona to hide behind. I should know...

By bob koepp (not verified) on 15 Nov 2007 #permalink

The Perfect is the enemy of the Good? Say it isn't so!

I don't know if there is any analytical system that works by pure introspection. However, based on the many ethics classes I've attended (does every college level science program assume that we'll all be Mad Scientists without a few ethics classes?), I have attempted to develop a quick method of testing my motives. If I am using my power to limit growth (my own or other humans'), I'm immoral. If I'm encouraging growth, then I am acting morally. (Maybe I've read too much Scot Peck in my life, RIP.)

This says nothing about whether I'd jump on train tracks, push one person on train tracks to save four others or anything of the like. You may like to research Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt for some kewl neuorbiological underpinnings of moral psychology and moral judgement, because you can get into this topic pretty deep, pretty quick. Have fun and let us know how it goes.