Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

How self-control improves ethical decision making

By Kaitlin Woolley, Brittany Christian


Despite having the best intentions to behave morally, people often engage in unethical behaviors. They are dishonest, they cheat, and they fall prey to ethical temptations on a daily basis. Why is this the case and what can help people follow through with their goals to live with moral integrity and a greater sense of purpose? The problem is two-fold; people may not even realize they are making an unethical decision in the first place, and when they do, they may be ill equipped to overcome the temptation to behave unethically. In a recent review, New Paths to Purpose member Ayelet Fishbach and PhD candidate Kaitlin Woolley at the University of Chicago used a self-control framework to understand ethical decision making. Ethical problems contain similarities to typical self-control dilemmas, such as struggling with the temptation to eat unhealthily. In both cases, people need to forgo positive benefits in the moment to reach their long-term goals. In a typical self-control dilemma, dieters need to resist eating delicious, but unhealthy foods, to reach their goal of losing weight. Similarly, in the ethical domain people with the goal of maintaining their moral integrity need to resist behaviors that may make things easier for them in the moment (e.g., cheating), to achieve their long-term goal. Implementing self-control in the ethical domain can help people follow through on their goal of behaving ethically. This involves a two-step process: people first need to identify that a decision poses an ethical conflict, and then they need to exercise self-control to overcome the temptation to behave unethically.

Identifying the ethical dilemma

Image ©: Terry Robinson 2011

Individuals may find it difficult to recognize ethical self-control conflicts because they are not always black and white. For example, a person may not realize using sick days for vacationing is unethical if it is the norm. Other times, the ethical dilemma is clearly spelled out, such as when universities implement an honor code to prevent plagiarism. One way to more clearly identify a self-control conflict is by grouping multiple related decisions into one. For example, an environmentalist deciding to take a long shower can think about that one shower in isolation or as part of multiple showers she will take throughout her life. Using this ‘broad framing’ and thinking about the shower as one of many, she will consider a larger and more significant impact on the environment, which can help her identify the conflict. Mentally grouping seemingly trivial actions together may make a ‘grey’ situation more black and white. Similar to the broad framing of a wasteful or unethical act as one of many, psychological connectedness (the extent to which a person sees himself as similar to who he will be in the future), plays a role in identification of ethical dilemmas. The more similar a person feels his present self is to his future self, the more likely he is to see a connection between what is tempting in the present and what will be tempting in the future. Thus, engaging in unethical behavior will be seen as having a larger impact. Another factor influencing the identification of an ethical dilemma is the extent to which the action itself defines who we are. Since people engage in ethical behavior primarily to maintain a moral self-image, a conflict is easier to identify when it is seen to be diagnostic of who an individual is as a person.

Exercising self-control

Just because a person recognizes that eating a piece of cake will break their diet does not mean they will choose to have fruit instead. Similarly, identifying an ethical dilemma does not necessarily mean people will respond by behaving ethically. Once a person identifies a conflict, the next step is to effectively exercise self-control. One key to success is advanced warning of an upcoming temptation. For example, if a student is warned that he will face a strong temptation to cheat on his final exam, on the day of the exam he will react by exerting more effort to overcome this temptation than had he not been warned. Further, people can engage in self-control strategies to help resist the urge to behave unethically. They can pre-commit to their long-term goal of being an ethical person by making certain decisions public rather than private. They can also reflect on the negative consequences of acting unethically to decrease the perceived value of acting on temptation.

While we all face the temptation to behave unethically, some people may be better equipped than others to resist the urge to behave immorally. Indeed, in recent research Michael Ent and professors Roy Baumeister and Diane Tice from Florida State University found people’s chronic self-control predicted their ability to resist temptation. The authors found that individuals with higher trait self-control were able to exert more patience, waiting longer to work in a room free from distractions than their counterparts with lower trait self-control. These individuals experience fewer self-control conflicts during their daily lives because they are less likely to expose themselves to a conflict in the first place. However, the recent review suggests that there is hope for all of us to learn how to identify ethical dilemmas and to adopt strategies which help us to act in accordance with our moral goals and values, ultimately leading to a more purposeful and fulfilling life for ourselves and those whom our behaviors have the potential to impact. 


Kaitlin Woolley is a graduate student based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

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