The temptation to act unethically may actually be a good thing, according to new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

"People often think that bad people do bad things and good people do good things, and that unethical behavior just comes down to character," Dr. Oliver Sheldon, lead researcher and assistant professor of organizational behavior at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said in a press release. "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.” Self-control, or lack thereof, Sheldon added, may be one of those situational factors.

He and his team conducted a series of experiences in which participants could anticipate the temptation to act unethically. In one experiment, nearly 200 students were tasked with buying or selling historic homes. Half of the students assigned to buy were reminded of ethical complications, while the other half, the control group, was not.

Additionally, the sellers were told to sell only to buyers who would preserve (not destroy) the home, while buyers were told hide the fact they knew their client would demolish the homes in order to build a high-rise hotel.

The results showed 67 percent of buyers lied about the hotel so they could close the deal compared to 45 percent of buyers who were reminded about ethical behavior. This suggests if people can identify an unethical act as having the potential to jeopardize their image, integrity, or reputation, they can benefit from the temptation.

Identifying these potential damages may be the key factor, since separate experiments showed participants who believed unethical acts were isolated incidents, or not representative of their future self, were more likely to lie about certain tasks.

"Unethical behavior may not be experienced as something that needs to be resisted if people think it's socially acceptable or does not reflect on their moral self-image," Sheldon said. "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.'"

Avoiding unethical behavior, Sheldon concluded, could be as easy as anticipating the temptation and how giving into said temptation will affect an individual’s long-term goals or beliefs about their own morality. It may be less about getting caught, and more about an ethical self-image.

Source: Sheldon O, et al. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2015.