Good deeds don't always lead to more good behavior - a person's ethical mindset can determine how "good" or "bad" they are to others, and how prone they are to cheating.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but previous psychological research has been inconclusive about how a person's previous acts affect their current good or bad behavior. The main strands of thinking are split between the concepts of moral balancing or behavioral consistency.

Moral balancing suggests that everyone has a "moral setpoint," and subconsciously keeps count of their good and bad deeds in an effort to stay close to that moral setpoint - doing enough good deeds allows people to feel that they can cheat and behave a little badly, while doing too many bad deeds means they owe a moral debt to behave better.

Behavioral consistency suggests merely that engaging in an ethical or unethical act reinforces more of the same good or bad behavior.

A Spanish research team found that a person's ethical mindset determines which moral behavior path they follow.

People with an "ends justify the means" mindset are more likely to balance their good deeds and bad deeds, while people who believe in a fundamental difference between right and wrong are more likely to be consistent in their behavior, even if it is bad behavior.

The study, led by Gert Cornelissen of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, was published in the journal Psychological Science last week.

Cornelissen's team explored the difference between the two ethical mindsets in three studies, which all found that a person's likelihood of cheating was heavily influenced by their dominant ethical mindset, as well as their past behavior.

People with an outcome-based mindset were more inclined to engage in "bad" behavior after remembering their good deeds. After recalling recent ethical behavior, they were more likely to withhold coins from partners when given a pot of money to divide. They were also more likely to be cheating when asked to self-report the number of test questions they answered correctly.

People with a rule-based mindset, however, were more consistent in the morality of their behavior. After recalling previous good behavior, they gave more coins to their partner and were less likely to be cheating.

The study's integration of ethical mindsets and moral behavior can help psychologists reconcile the different strands of research on good and bad deeds.

Cornelissen and his colleagues believe that their research involves a basic psychological mechanism that can help understand people's bad behavior when they are pitted against others in everyday situations - as students, consumers, bosses, employees, family members, or neighbors. It can also help explain why some people are consistently unethical, and shed light on cheating.

"In the current studies, we showed that a rule-based mindset can lead to a consistent pattern of unethical behavior, in which violating a rule becomes the norm. Such a pattern resembles the slippery slope of moral decision making," they wrote.

They believe that more research can help figure out how this mechanism works, and how people in everyday situations can be encouraged to do good deeds instead of going down the self-reinforcing path of bad behavior and cheating others.