Because we want to maintain the idea of our own morality, new research from Ben-Gurion University says, our ethical blind spots may be defined by context. People are most likely to cheat when a situation is ambiguous enough to provide moral cover, the researchers say.

We lie to benefit ourselves, not others. (Natch.) Yet in some situations we can hide our bad behavior from others and also, it would seem, ourselves. Blurry situations, where it doesn’t much matter, where mistakes can easily be made, lead to blurry ethics. To conduct their study of potential ethical blind spots, a group of researchers enlisted the help of participants who were instructed to look at a computer screen displaying the rolls of six dice. Meanwhile, the researchers monitored each participant’s gaze using eye-tracking equipment. With each roll, the participants reported the number for the die appearing closest to a designated target on the screen.

In one experiment, participants learned they would be paid in line with the number they reported. Saying the die rolled "6" would result in a bigger payoff than saying "5." Participants, then, would maximize their income by reporting a "6" for each and every trial. However, if they did this, their cheating would be obvious. Because their cheating could become obvious, the researchers hypothesized, the participants will be tempted to cheat only when they might justify any "mistake" by saying they saw the incorrect number on the die second closest to the target.

In another experiment, participants were paid for the accuracy of their reporting. Since any mistake would only harm their potential payout, the researchers hypothesized, the value on the second closest die would not influence participants' reports.

So, how accurately did the participants report the die rolls? The participants correctly reported values in about 84 percent of the pay-for-report trials. However, in the pay-for-accuracy trials, they were correct about 90 percent of the time.

Looking at the results more closely, mistakes made during the pay-for-report trials revealed a pattern: Participants were more likely to report the second closest die only when it was higher. The monitor of their gaze also showed how the participants spent more time looking at the tempting die only during pay-for-report trials. They did not stare at it so long during the accuracy trials.

Finally, during a third experiment, the researchers varied the distance between the nearest die and the target to see whether more ambiguous configurations would lead to more self-serving mistakes.

Once again, participants did not make nearly as many "mistakes" when paid for accuracy... and they were more likely to report a tempting value only when the target appeared close enough to provide cover for this "mistake."

"Situations in which ambiguity is high are especially prone to self-serving interpretation of available information," Dr. Shaul Shalvi, an associate professor of psychology, stated in a press release. If your goal is to improve your own or organizational behavior, he and his colleagues note, you would be wise to make the boundary lines perfectly clear.

Source: Pittarello A, Leib M, Gordon-Hecker T, Shalvi S. Justifications Shape Ethical Blind Spots. Psychological Science. 2015.