You’re a good person, right? Then why are you doing bad things?

A few days ago, I noticed that my bank account was a little higher than expected. I did a bit of reconciling and saw that due to over-generosity on the part of our bank, we had been compensated twice for a fraudulent transaction that we had been hit with last week. As it wasn’t an insignificant amount, I’ve been kind of at a loss what to do. Should I call and let them know that they made a mistake? I would obviously call and complain if they hadn’t reimbursed me. However, when I think of calling the bank, I start thinking about my how it’s going to benefit me. As I know it won’t, I don’t do anything.

They’re a big bank, I think. What do I owe them? They’ll eventually figure out the error and take the money back. What advantage is there for me to let them know otherwise? And, during that time, I have a slightly larger account balance. I’m not spending the money in the account, so no one can say that I’m doing anything wrong.

The Freakonomics podcast recently had an interesting episode called “Does Doing Good Give You License to Be Bad?” In it, they talked about how, generally, companies that practice corporate giving usually attract higher quality workers, which is awesome. However, what’s less awesome is that those individuals also have a tendency to steal more and cheat more than those who work for companies that don’t practice corporate giving. Strange, hunh?

We have entered in an interesting psychological area called “moral reasoning”, which is when people allow themselves to do bad things because they think their positive actions act like a counterbalance to whatever transgressions they are doing. You hold open a door to a stranger, so who is really going to fault you for stealing a cookie from the counter. You help your neighbor with their yard work, so why feel bad when you take their paper?

Of course, few people think that we are a bad person. The situation is complex, we think. Petty theft from the office supply closet is a given in today’s modern society. Retail giants are gargantuan, child-labor machines run by Haitian warlords and I refuse to feel bad for abusing the returns policy at my local Nordstrom! Also, I volunteered at the food bank on Sunday, so don’t look at me like that!

Of course, it’s worse among those who have the greatest advantages. People with the highest incomes and largest social clout are the most likely to steal. But, partly, I think it is because we know they can get away with it.

Case in point, I’m a middle-aged, middle-class white guy who drives a Prius. Occasionally, I go faster than the speed limit, a fact that my daughters like to point out to me. I say, yes, that is true but I don’t really slow down. Seriously, who is going to stop me? I could be driving down the road with a sign painted on my back window saying “I JUST ROBBED A BANK” and cops would just shrug, or worse yet, think that I’m an investment banker.

Often, I would end a post like this with a statement that I will try to be a better, more deserving person. However, the more I think about moral reasoning, the more I notice it in everything I do. I’m constantly making (small) trade-offs for convenience or some real (or imagined) necessity. I think we all do, every day. Life is hard for the morally rigid and part of living is trying to get along without getting sucked under by guilt for our various choices.

However, moral reasoning, like many cognitive biases, is strongest when unacknowledged. However, the solution isn’t in shaming people who have done wrong, but rather reaffirming their positive, good nature and reminding them to live up to who they envision themselves to be.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a call to my bank that I need to make.