Call it what you like…thirst for control, money, power, greed, lust or simply a lack of conscience. Does good behavior lead to more good behavior and by the same token does bad behavior lead to more of the bad? The answer depends on our ethical mindset, according to new research published in Psychological Science.
What makes a person feel justified in taking advantage over another? Psychological scientist Gert Cornelissen of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and colleagues found that people who have an “ends justify the means” mindset are more likely to balance their good and bad deeds, while those who believe that what is right and wrong is a matter of principle are more likely to be consistent in their behavior, even if that behavior is bad.
Previous research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that providing a sense of power to someone instills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong (especially wrong). Once armed with this moral clarity, powerful people then perceive wrongdoing with much less ambiguity than people lacking this power, and punish apparent wrong-doers with more severity than people without power would.
Existing research is mixed when it comes to explaining how previous behavior affects our current moral conduct.
Some researchers find evidence for moral balancing, suggesting that we hover around a moral setpoint. Going over that setpoint by doing a good deed gives us license to engage in more self-interested, immoral, or antisocial behavior. When our moral self-image falls below that setpoint, however, we feel ill at ease and try to compensate by engaging in positive behavior.
What decides whether you will sell out your personal values to the highest bidder? It can be reasonably suggested that there would be no corruption in the world if people refused to sacrifice their value systems for monetary compensation. So why does it happen?
A neuro-imaging study shows that personal values that people refuse to disavow, even when offered cash to do so, are processed differently in the brain than those values that are willingly sold.
The brain imaging data showed a strong correlation between sacred values and activation of the neural systems associated with evaluating rights and wrongs (the left temporoparietal junction) and semantic rule retrieval (the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex), but not with systems associated with reward.
Investigators have previously found that particular emotional centers in the brain charged up when the dilemmas involved people in clear and present danger. But the brain activity was diminished in moral decisions that did not involve “up close and personal”‘ harm to others–such as deciding whether to keep money found in a lost wallet.