Oliver Sheldon quoted in The Good Men Project on rationalizing negative behavior

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Newark, NJ

The Good Men Project

Just as humans have evolved all sorts of ways to cope in the world—from opposable thumbs to written language—people have developed a knack for rationalizing behavior in themselves that they would label negatively in others. Theft, for example: stealing something once, especially something minor, doesn’t warrant labeling in most people’s eyes; to be called a ‘thief’ requires making a habit of theft.

Thanks to this kind of rationalization, simply knowing better doesn’t stop us from actually doing better. Moral compromises and indiscretions are easily justified in hindsight.

So if knowing better doesn’t always lead to acting better, how can people combat potentially harmful (and hurtful) lapses of judgment?

Oliver Sheldon, of Rutgers Business School, authored a study looking at how individuals distinguish bad behavior from bad character. As he explained, people find it easier to excuse incidents of negative behavior if they view them as isolated:

“People often compartmentalize their experiences of temptation, making it much easier for them to rationalize the behavior. They might say, ‘Just because I took office supplies home for personal use one time, that doesn’t mean I’m a thief.”

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TAGS: Ethics Management and Global Business Oliver Sheldon