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Why do good people sometimes do bad things? It's an issue theologians, philosophers and parents have wrestled with for centuries. The question also has captured the attention of social psychologists who, like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, have used laboratory and field experiments to try to explain seemingly inexplicable events like the Holocaust and Abu Ghraib. But the lessons from decades of psychological research extend beyond our efforts to understand the worst of human behavior. That research also tells us something about the way each of us responds to the ethical questions we face in our daily lives.
We've all done things we are not proud of. The typical person in our society tells lies almost daily. We all know littering is wrong, yet government agencies spend more than $11 billion annually cleaning up the debris that clutters our nation's streets, parks and beaches. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year in this country an intoxicated person will get behind the wheel of a car 112 million times. Millions of movies and billions of songs are illegally downloaded every year. Students cheat on tests. Adults cheat on their taxes. Yet most of us consider ourselves to be basically good people.
Of course, human behavior is the result of a complex interplay of causes, and the list of reasons psychologists have compiled for ethical and moral missteps is a long one. But I've noticed that one cause in particular inevitably seems to surface whenever psychologists try to pinpoint the reasons for our transgressions. Specifically, people are more likely to do the right thing when they take personal responsibility for their actions. On the flip side of this phenomenon we find people who explain away their ethically questionable behavior as "just doing my job," or "just following orders."
Accepting personal responsibility played an important role in Milgram's famous obedience studies. Many of Milgram's participants were decent individuals who nonetheless continued to administer what they believed to be excruciating if not lethal electric shocks to an innocent person. Looking back, we can see that Milgram put his participants in a situation that made it easy for them to deny responsibility for their actions. Participants could blame the experimenter who encouraged them to continue, the investigator who designed the study, or the university that approved the research. Indeed, if participants asked who was responsible for any harm that came to the man receiving the shocks, the experimenter answered that he -- the experimenter -- was responsible. Researchers find that this kind of release from responsibility often paves the way to ethically questionable and sometimes unsettling behavior.
I examined the power of personal responsibility in a replication of Milgram's study that I conducted a few years ago. My research assistants and I coded the spontaneous comments participants made as they went through the experimental procedures. In particular, we noted whether at any time during the session a participant said something about feeling responsible for harming the man on the other side of the wall. Two-thirds of the people who refused to administer the shocks made comments indicating that they felt responsible for the consequences of their actions. In contrast, only 12.2 percent of the participants who continued to press the shock levers gave any indication that they felt responsible.
Social psychologists are fond of saying that we are influenced by the situation we find ourselves in far more than most of us realize. Unfortunately, this message is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that we should not hold people in unfortunate circumstances accountable for their actions. To be sure, there are cases in which extreme situations can mitigate culpability, such as when a long-time victim strikes back at his or her abuser, i.e., the exculpation defense. But for the most part, the lesson from social psychology is just the opposite. Whenever possible, people should be held accountable for their actions. This was the thinking behind the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a reaction to a series of scandals that rocked corporate America in the early 2000s. Among the regulations in the act is a requirement that the principal officers of publicly held companies (usually the CEO and the Chief Financial Officer) take responsibility for and certify the accuracy of all quarterly financial reports. The notion of personal responsibility is also why, although all American military personnel take an oath to obey orders from their superiors, that obedience does not extend to "illegal" orders. An order to fire at enemy soldiers is legal. An order to massacre innocent villagers is not.
But the importance of taking responsibility extends beyond concerns about legal responsibility. Many of the ethical missteps we see in everyday life are made possible when we assign blame to other people ("The cashier gave me too much change, I didn't make her do it"). There is much we can do to structure organizations and policies so that individuals who contribute to unethical or illegal behavior are held accountable for their actions. The bigger challenge may be getting people to accept personal responsibility and do the right thing even when they are the only ones who will ever know.
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