Why Good People Do Bad Things

Posted by A.C. Ping
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The recent drugs in sport controversy together with the revelations of the behind the scenes antics of the Australian swimming team at the London Olympics has left many of us wondering how this could possibly have happened?

The instinctive response to such events is to point to one of three things; character flaws - the perpetrators are 'bad apples'; greed - they did it for the money; or, lack of values - they've been brought up badly and need to be re-educated. Heaven forbid that we could possibly accept that 'they' could be just like us - much easier to condemn them and declare "I would never do anything like that!"

But reality and research reveals a far more complex answer. You see if you scratch below the surface of this issue and look closely at the people involved you won't find bad, greedy people with fatal character flaws. Instead you will find family minded people who've often done a lot for the community and in many cases have gone beyond the call of duty for their clubs, team mates and country.

So, what's going on? How do good people end up doing bad things?

It's all got to do with stories and justifications. All of us tell a story about ourselves that describes our moral identity - whether or not we are a good or bad person. When we do something bad we have to re-adjust our story to reflect what we've just done. The thing is there's a certain degree of flexibility in the way we can describe events to ourselves and this is where we have a big of wriggle room to let ourselves off the hook.

Rationalisations allow us to justify taking certain actions that if we saw someone else do we would be most likely to condemn. Common rationalisations include; denial of responsibility - "I was just following orders"; denial of injury - "It didn't hurt anyone"; denial of the victim - "They deserved it"; condemning the condemners - "You have no right to judge us"; an appeal to higher loyalties - "We did it for the team"; everyone else is doing it - "If we don't do it then it wouldn't be fair" (see Lance Armstrong for a good example of this!); claim to entitlement - "We've earned it".

Rationalisations allow 'good' people to keep their moral identity intact even as they do 'bad' things.

What goes hand in hand with rationalisations and makes unethical practices endemic is socialisation. Socialisation is the process of including individuals in a group to reinforce meaning. The more one desires to be a part of a group the more one is likely to bend one's own values and behaviours to fit the group - see the bizarre initiation ritual described by the Australian men's relay team for instance.

Socialisation is negative when old 'players' model 'bad' behaviour; newcomers are encouraged to emulate and idolise them; newcomers are consistently told "This is the way we do things around here"; and, any concerns of the newcomers are dismissed as their personal naiveté or shortcomings.

Established rationalisation and socialisation is hard to overcome simply because the people perpetrating the behaviours are not 'bad' people. Attempts to address the 'bad' behaviour are recast as personal attacks on 'good' people. Witness the way in which Rugby league players have rallied around sacked coaches, community members have stood up for the 'good blokes', and fans have called for Board members to be sacked.

When 'bad' practices come to light we want someone to blame, a bad guy to take the fall. The problem occurs when at the end of the trail of clues, investigations find instead of an Ogre, a community minded family man with a track record of caring for others.

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