Moral illusions can fool our decision-making – making us more selfish


Just as optical illusions can fool the eye to present a distorted image of reality, moral illusions can fool our decision-making ability, making us more selfish.

This is the conclusion of a newly presented doctoral thesis from Linköping University. But the results also show that we are more likely to vote for the good of all when taking part in democratic decisions.

“We tend to use what we can call a ‘moral wiggle room’ to justify selfish decisions. This means that we can act selfishly in certain situations, without feeling that our actions are morally wrong,” says Kajsa Hansson, newly promoted doctor in economics at Linköping University, with a thesis entitled Moral Illusions.

In the thesis, she examines several aspects of what she terms ‘moral illusions’, and compares them to optical illusions. She concludes that we can tweak our morals in some situations to increase self-benefit.

“Fairness is in the eye of the beholder. But I have used a broad definition of morality, and I don’t judge whether a certain type of fairness is good or bad. Instead, I use the idea of whether a person experiences that they are not living up to their own notion of good morality,” says Kajsa Hansson.

Moral illusions mainly arise in competitive situations when many people compete for the same rewards. This is a consequence of psychological mechanisms that cause us to assess fairness differently, depending on whether we are successful or not. This is particularly the case when we lack information about the fairness of the situation. When the brain attempts to fill in missing information, it may create an image that does not match reality – in the same way as occurs for an optical illusion.

One example is how we view losing. If we lose, we tend to blame it on that the playing field was not level, or that the game was rigged. When we win, in contrast, we explain this by our excellent playing skills. This tendency may describe why successful people believe that the world is a meritocracy, and that economic inequalities are thus fair.

Kajsa Hansson has also investigated how we react to decisions when we can avoid information that may encourage unselfish behaviour. In this case, again, our morality can be tweaked, since we are reluctant to seek out more information that risks giving us a bad conscience. Such information may force us to act unselfishly.

There is, however, one situation in which moral illusions do not play a role – when decisions are taken democratically. This may be the case for decisions taken by the national parliament, but it also applies in the committees of clubs, companies, etc., where several people are involved and take decisions collectively.

This result contradicts the currently accepted theory, which says that we become less moral when the responsibility for a decision is shared among several people. This phenomenon is known as the “diffusion of responsibility”.

“When decisions are taken democratically, there is always someone else we can blame, and previous studies have shown that we become more selfish when the responsibility for a decision is spread among several people. However, our results do not support the idea that people become less moral when taking such decisions. In fact, quite the opposite,” says Kajsa Hansson.

In the study, Kajsa Hansson and her colleagues carried out three experiments in which the participants must choose whether to donate or claim money. In some experiments, the decision was a democratic one between several participants; in others the participants acted individually. The results showed that it was not possible to see any selfish behaviour. Indeed, they showed that people tend to become more generous in this scenario.

“Our results are actually very good news. They suggest that we possess the insight that we take decisions for others, and we act collectively. We can speculate that people realise that we can contribute more to the common good when everyone contributes,” says Kajsa Hansson.

The thesis considers decision-making in a broad perspective, and looks at how morality affects it. Kajsa Hansson believes that it can help us understand each other better.

“We may not always agree with everyone’s interpretations of reality, but we can understand where they come from.”

Funding: The thesis has been funded by the Lars Hierta Memorial Foundation and the Helge Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

Selfish and Unethical Behavior

Numerous studies have found that individu- als resort to unethical behaviors out of self- interest. Researchers studying selfish unethi- cal behaviors have examined conditions that trigger individuals to cheat, lie, and steal for themselves. For instance, competitive envi- ronments often promote a “whatever it takes to win” mindset (Hegarty & Sims, 1978; Kilduff, Galinsky, Gallo, & Reade, 2016), thereby increasing selfish behaviors that are unethical. In firms, employees who compete for status are more likely to fabricate their performance and sabotage competitors’ work (Charness, Masclet, & Villeval, 2014). In sports, players adopt unsportsmanlike behaviors in order to get ahead of their ri- vals (Kilduff et al., 2016). In academia, to compete with their peers, scholars inflate their papers’ download counts from leading working paper repositories such as the So- cial Science Research Network (SSRN; Edel- man & Larkin, 2015).

Similarly, goals can “go wild” (Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky, & Bazerman, 2009): By narrowing individuals’ focus on the outcome, goals may motivate them to take selfish actions, including unethical ones (Schweitzer, Ordóñez, & Douma, 2004). Barsky (2008) formulated two psychologi- cal mechanisms through which goal set- ting can facilitate unethical behavior: moral disengagement and lack of ethical recogni- tion. When individuals are highly focused on their goals, they may disengage their internal moral controls to rationalize their unethical behaviors (i.e., moral disengage- ment) or even fail to recognize the unethi- cality of such behaviors (i.e., lack of ethical recognition; Barsky, 2008). In workplace settings, the use of production or sales goals can encourage employees to cheat and lie (Jensen, 2003). For example, Sears’s goal- oriented commission system has been iden- tified as the culprit for its employees’ sys- tematic defrauding of customers (Paine & Santoro, 1993). Moreover, individuals are likely to resort to unethical means when they are about to fall short of their goals (Schweitzer et al., 2004). For example, au- thors are particularly apt to inflate their pa- pers’ download counts in order to prevent their papers from falling off the “top-10” list of the SSRN (Edelman & Larkin, 2015). The influence of selfish motives on un- ethicality also extends to the dimension of moral judgment. Instead of adhering to a stable set of moral codes, individuals apply their beliefs and judgments strategically to maximize their personal outcomes (DeScio- li, Massenkoff, Shaw, Petersen, & Kurzban, 2014). For example, people judge the unethi- cal behavior of others more leniently when that behavior serves their own interests (Bo- cian & Wojciszke, 2014). Likewise, self-in- terest motivates “moral hypocrisy,” where- by people evaluate themselves less harshly than others for the same unethical behavior (Valdesolo & DeSteno, 2007, 2008).

Selfish and Ethical Behavior

Although self-interest often breeds unethical behaviors, it can also foster ethical behav- iors, particularly in situations in which self- interest is aligned with the interest of others. In what follows, we highlight how self-inter- est can lead individuals to avoid temptations to cheat, to rectify others’ unethical acts, and to engage in prosocial behaviors.

In society, the presence of legal punish- ment speaks directly to how self-interest dis- courages unethical behaviors. Selfishly, peo- ple often refrain from behaving unethically when the risk and cost of being caught are high (Brass, Butterfield, & Skaggs, 1998). Even in the absence of formal punishment, individuals are still driven to protect their moral identity as a “good person” (Bryan, Adams, & Monin, 2013). As a result, they often adopt behaviors that serve to present themselves as “moral” in their own eyes and the eyes of others (Frimer, Schaefer, & Oakes, 2014). For example, individuals were less likely to cheat when told “don’t be a cheater” than when told “don’t cheat,” be- cause being labeled a cheater is threatening to one’s self-image (Bryan et al., 2013).

Self-interest can also guide individuals to take action against others’ unethical be- haviors. For instance, whistle-blowing, de- fined as the disclosure of “illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices . . . to persons or organizations who may be able to effect ac- tion” (Near & Miceli, 1985, p. 4), is often motivated by self-interest. In reporting on a cheater in an academic competition, a stu- dent not only upholds the academic honor code but also gains an edge over the compe- tition by eliminating a contender. Similarly, when whistle-blowers reveal fraudulent be- havior, they may be entitled to a percentage of the financial recovery. For example, “the IRS Whistleblower Office pays money to people who blow the whistle on persons who fail to pay the tax that they owe” (U.S. De- partment of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, 2017). Socially, the larger commu- nity may even hail whistle-blowers as heroes (Johnson, 2003).

Selfish motives can also foster prosocial behaviors, or voluntary, intentional behav- iors that result in benefits for others (Eisen- berg & Miller, 1987). In the United States, many individuals donate to charitable or- ganizations, both to receive tax deductions (Feldstein, 1975) and to publicly signal their wealth, status, or moral character (Ari- ely, Bracha, & Meier, 2009; Rege & Telle, 2004). Similarly, parents make substantial donations to universities to increase their children’s chances of admission (Golden, 2003). In China, many citizens donate “just enough” blood (i.e., 800 milliliters) to qual- ify as recipients in future blood transfusions (Shi et al., 2014). Likewise, in countries such as Israel and Singapore, individuals register as organ donors so that they are prioritized if they should be in need of organs in the future (Lavee, Ashkenazi, Gurman, & Stein- berg, 2010).

Prominent philosophers and economists have argued that selfishness and ethicality are closely linked. Adam Smith, the found- ing father of economics, famously wrote, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest” (Smith, 1937, p. 16). In essence, the study of free-market economics—which Smith viewed as a branch of moral philoso- phy (Griswold, 1999)—rests on the premise that human beings are self-interested (Smith, 1937) and that, when each individual seeks to maximize his or her own utility, the col- lective will prosper. Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize laureate in economics, called this Invisible Hand (of selfishness) “the pos- sibility of cooperation without coercion” (Friedman, 1999).

Unselfish and Ethical Behavior

Just as selfishness can foster both unethical and ethical behaviors, unselfishness—the willingness to put the needs of others before one’s own—can also lead to both ethical and unethical behaviors.

Much research has explored conditions under which altruistic intentions produce ethical outcomes (Batson & Shaw, 1991; Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005). People help others (e.g., anonymous donations, community service) even when there is no clear or direct benefit to them- selves other than the “warm glow” of giving (Harbaugh, Mayr, & Burghart, 2007; Pilia- vin, 2003).

Individuals also engage in risky and self- sacrificing behaviors in order to benefit oth- ers. Raising sensitive issues within an orga- nization (e.g., telling a manager that his new policy is unpopular among employees) has the potential to benefit others (e.g., the man- ager enacts favorable changes) but may also pose risks for the actor (e.g., dismissal from job; Burris, Detert, & Romney, 2013).

Two other areas that highlight the role of unselfish ethical behavior are whistle-blowing and altruistic punishment. Although whistle-blowing can be motivated by selfish reasons (as highlighted earlier), it can also be driven by moral principles. For example, Waytz, Dungan, and Young (2013) provide evidence that whistle-blowing is especially likely to occur when people are focused on justice and fairness. Sometimes whistle- blowers are not only unselfish but also vul- nerable to both psychological distress (e.g., anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks; Peters et al., 2011) and social backlash from members of their own community (Dyck, Morse, & Zingales, 2010).

Altruistic punishment, in which “indi- viduals punish, although the punishment is costly for them and yields no material gain” (Fehr & Gächter, 2002, p. 137), is another case of unselfish ethical behavior. People often go out of their way (incurring effort and time cost) to punish perpetrators (e.g., individuals who cut into lines or who sneak into music festivals) because “it is the right thing to do.” Altruistic punishment facili- tates cooperation in groups, organizations, and societies; without it, cooperation would often break down (Fehr & Gächter, 2002).

Unselfish and Unethical Behavior

Although unselfishness can lead to ethical behaviors, it can also result in unethical behaviors. Unselfish yet unethical behav- iors typically arise when there is a conflict between two competing moral principles (Levine & Schweitzer, 2014). For example, many moral dilemmas that lead individuals toward unselfish and unethical actions often feature a contention between two founda- tional pillars of moral psychology: justice and care (Levine & Schweitzer, 2014, 2015). Whereas justice reflects deontological moral imperatives (e.g., thou shalt not lie; Kant, 1959), care prioritizes the utilitarian con- sideration of helping and protecting others (Bentham, 1948; Walker & Hennig, 2004). Heinz’s dilemma (Kohlberg, 1963) epitomiz- es this moral tension: Stealing would breach the law of justice, whereas watching one’s wife die without intervening would violate the principle of caring for others.

When individuals are faced with this ten- sion in moral judgment, care can supersede justice and lead individuals to take unselfish yet unethical actions. Many of us engage in altruistic lying, defined as “false statements that are costly for the liar and are made with the intention of misleading and benefitting a target’’ (Levine & Schweitzer, 2014, p. 108). Since early childhood, we are taught that it is polite to tell prosocial lies (Broomfield, Rob- inson, & Robinson, 2002; Talwar, Murphy, & Lee, 2007), particularly when these lies provide others with interpersonal support (Brown & Levinson, 1987) and psychologi- cal protection (DePaulo & Kashy, 1998). For example, parents may lie about their divorce to protect their child. Similarly, with no ap- parent self-serving motive, doctors may lie to patients about bleak prognoses to provide them hope and comfort (Iezzoni, Rao, Des- Roches, Vogeli, & Campbell, 2012).

Like Aaron Swartz, some individuals are willing to engage in unethical behaviors that have the potential to benefit a larger community—even at the cost of sacrificing themselves. Members of WikiLeaks, for ex- ample, exposed classified information to the public—an illegal activity that antagonized the U.S government—in order to serve its altruistic mission of “defense of freedom of speech and media publishing” and ultimate- ly “to create a better society for all people” (, 2011).2

Finally, motives that are linked to altruism can produce behaviors that violate moral rules. For example, empathy—a psychologi- cal process that generally leads to prosocial behaviors—can also lead individuals to violate moral rules by according “favored” status and preferential treatment to the tar- get of empathy (Batson, Klein, Highberger, & Shaw, 1995). Individuals induced to feel empathy for a particular individual are more likely to violate the principle of justice by al- locating resources preferentially to that per- son (Batson, Klein, et al., 1995), even at the cost of reducing the collective good (Batson, Batson, et al., 1995).

Antecedents of Selfish versus Unselfish Unethical Behavior

As illustrated in the previous sections, drawing a distinction between unethical behavior and selfish behavior is critical to the study of moral psychology. Given that both ethical and unethical behaviors can result from both selfish and unselfish intentions, merely focus- ing on situations in which unethicality and selfishness co-occur creates an incomplete and inaccurate representation of the drivers of unethical behavior. We next discuss three specific cases (social class, organizational identification, and loyalty) that demonstrate the need to parse unethical behaviors driven by selfish versus unselfish motives.

Social Class

Prior research has found a positive rela- tionship between social class and unethical behavior (Piff, Stancato, Côté, Mendo- za-Denton, & Keltner, 2012). Upper-class individuals have more favorable attitudes toward greed, which partially account for their higher tendency to engage in unethical behaviors such as lying and cheating (Piff et al., 2012). However, a closer examination of this effect reveals that the identity of the beneficiary of an unethical behavior is a crit- ical moderator of the relationship between social class and unethical behavior (Dubois, Rucker, & Galinsky, 2015). Upper-class in- dividuals, relative to lower-class individuals, are more prone to commit unethical acts that benefit themselves; in contrast, lower- class individuals, relative to upper-class indi- viduals, are more prone to commit unethical acts that benefit others. In explaining these

findings, Dubois and colleagues (2015) con- tend that higher social class tends to foster an agentic, self-serving orientation, whereas lower social class tends to nurture a communal, altruistic orientation. As a result, although both upper- and lower-class indi- viduals can behave unethically, upper-class individuals are more likely to do so for their own sake, whereas lower-class individuals are more likely to do so for others’ sake. These findings demonstrate that disentan- gling selfishness and unethicality serves to provide a more complete understanding of the antecedents of unethical behavior.

Organizational Identification

The distinction between unethicality and selfishness also helps unpack the relationship between organizational identification and ethicality. Organizational identification refers to an individual’s feeling of “oneness” with his or her organization (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). Individuals’ organizational identification significantly affects the extent to which they engage in selfish versus unselfish unethical behaviors (Vadera & Pratt, 2013). Individuals who strongly iden- tify with their organizations are more apt to behave unethically to benefit their organizations at a cost to themselves (Umphress, Bingham, & Mitchell, 2010).

To take an extreme example, tragic stories of terrorism reveal that suicide bombers are often overidentified members emboldened to “do justice” on behalf of their groups (Sageman, 2004). Similarly, although less violently, a strong organizational identification can lead employees to turn a blind eye to illegal ac- tivities in order to serve the interests of their organization (Dukerich et al., 1998).

In contrast, individuals who do not identify with their organizations are more likely to engage in selfish unethical acts. They tend to ignore organizational rules and feel free to act selfishly (e.g., arriving late to work and leaving early; Vadera & Pratt, 2013). In more extreme cases, individuals who have disengaged from their organization may even purposefully harm their organization to serve their self-interest, such as stealing office supplies and fabricating receipts for reimbursement (Vadera & Pratt, 2013).

Future Directions

In light of the distinction between unethical- ity and selfishness, we re-examine some of the previously documented antecedents of unethical behavior, and offer several nuanced predictions that could be tested in the future.

Money versus Time

Empirical studies have found that activat- ing the concept of money increases unethical intentions and behaviors (Cohn et al., 2014; Gino & Mogilner, 2014; Kouchaki, Smith- Crowe, Brief, & Sousa, 2013), whereas shift- ing the focus onto time may offset these ef- fects (Gino & Mogilner, 2014). However, in these experiments the beneficiary of the un- ethical behavior was always the participant him- or herself. If the unethical behavior were instead to benefit others rather than the agent of the behavior, we might see a reversal of the “money versus time effect.” That is, although money might increase selfish unethi- cal behavior, money may actually decrease unselfish unethical behavior.

Consistent with this proposition, across nine studies Vohs, Mead, and Goode (2006) found that money produces a self-sufficient orientation. Hence, activating the concept of money might lower an individual’s willingness to behave unethi- cally to benefit others. Conversely, although activating time can curb selfish unethical behavior (Gino & Mogilner, 2014), it may actually increase unselfish unethical behav- ior by making people more other-focused. In support of this possibility, Mogilner (2010) found that priming time motivates individu- als to invest more effort in social relation- ships (i.e., friends and family) and less time in their own instrumental work.

Social Learning Strategy

Prior research shows that individuals differ systematically in their social learning strate- gies (van den Berg, Molleman, & Weissing, 2015): Whereas some individuals attempt to imitate the most successful members of the group, others attend to the most norma- tive members. Importantly, success-oriented learners both cooperate less and behave more selfishly as compared with norm-oriented learners (van den Berg et al., 2015). These findings suggest that success-oriented individuals may be prone to engage in selfish unethical behavior, whereas norm-oriented individuals may be prone to engage in un- selfish unethical behavior. This possibility awaits further research.

Individualism versus Collectivism

Culture may also influence whether unethi- cal behaviors are selfish or unselfish. For ex- ample, cultural values appear to serve as one predictor of bribery. Based on cross-national and laboratory data, Mazar and Aggarwal (2011) argued that collectivist cultures are the breeding ground for bribery. In light of the distinction between unethicality and selfishness, we predict a more nuanced rela- tionship between individualism–collectivism and the type of unethical behavior enacted: Individualistic cultures may be more con- ducive to selfish unethical behaviors (e.g., bribing for one’s personal gain), whereas collectivistic culture may be more conducive to unselfish unethical behaviors (e.g., brib- ing for one’s organization, as in Mazar & Aggarwal, 2011). The logic for this predic- tion is consistent with the established no- tion that individualistic cultures foster more self-focused behaviors, whereas collectivistic cultures nurture more other-focused behav- iors (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Future research could investigate how cultural ori- entations affect unethical behavior enacted for oneself versus others.


At first glance, unethical behavior and self- ish intention are logical companions. Indeed, unethical behavior and selfish behavior typi- cally co-occur in the behavioral ethics liter- ature. However, such a perspective fails to reckon with their conceptual distinctions and unnecessarily limits our understand- ing of social behavior. Human beings can behave ethically or unethically, and behind those behaviors can lurk selfish or unselfish intentions. By teasing apart the constructs of ethicality and selfishness, we acquire a more complete understanding of moral psychology and set a promising research agenda for the future.

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Source: Linkoping University


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