Do-gooders can become the worst cheats
Study: Sense of moral superiority might lead to rationalizing bad behavior
By Jeanna Bryner
Morally upstanding people are the do-gooders of society, right? Actually, a new study finds that a sense of moral superiority can lead to unethical acts, such as cheating. In fact, some of the best do-gooders can become the worst cheats.
Stop us if this sounds familiar.
When asked to describe themselves, most people typically will rattle off a list of physical features and activities (for example, "I do yoga" or "I'm a paralegal"). But some people have what scientists call a moral identity, in which the answer to the question would include phrases like "I am honest" and "I am a caring person."
But often in life, the line between right and wrong becomes blurry, particularly when it comes to cheating on a test or in the workplace. For example, somebody could rationalize cheating on a test as a way of achieving their dream of becoming a doctor and helping people.
In the new study, detailed in the November issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers find that when this line between right and wrong is ambiguous among people who think of themselves as having high moral standards, the do-gooders can become the worst of cheaters.
The results recall the seeming disconnect between the words and actions of folks like televangelist and fraud convict Jim Bakker or admitted meth-buyer Ted Haggard, former president of the National Evangelical Association, an umbrella group representing some 45,000 churches.
"The principle we uncovered is that when faced with a moral decision, those with a strong moral identity choose their fate (for good or for bad) and then the moral identity drives them to pursue that fate to the extreme," said researcher Scott Reynolds of the University of Washington Business School in Seattle. "So it makes sense that this principle would help explain what makes the greatest of saints and the foulest of hypocrites."
Why cheat? Why not?
Why would a person who thinks of himself as honest cheat? The researchers suggest an "ethical person" could view cheating as an OK thing to do, justifying the act as a means to a moral end.
As Reynolds put it: "If I cheat, then I'll get into graduate school, and if I get into graduate school, then I can become a doctor and think about all the people I'm going to help when I'm a doctor."
A competitive playing field, whether at a university or business, can also motivate cheating behaviors.
"Cheating is a way to get ahead in a competitive environment where there are rewards for winning or getting ahead of others," said Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the current study. "It seems like there is an increasing desire and expectation in our society to 'be the best.' "
Even if a person doesn't justify his unethical behaviors, "cheating can save lots of time and energy and take advantage of the knowledge and reasoning of others who are more adept, but could be disastrous if one is caught," Kruger said. He added, "I am not surprised that some of the extreme examples of cheating — ripping the relevant pages out of library books so other students cannot see them — happen in intensely competitive environments, law school in this example (of ripping out book pages)."
Reynolds and University of Washington colleague Tara Ceranic surveyed about 230 college students with an average age of 21 who were enrolled in an upper-level business course. The survey measured moral identity with 12 questions about the importance of certain characteristics — such as generosity, willingness to work hard, honesty and compassion — and whether things like clothing, books, activities and friends were associated with the moral characteristics.
Students were also asked whether they had engaged in each of 13 cheating behaviors, including using cheat sheets (crib notes), copying from another student and turning in work completed by someone else.
Overall, cheating was rampant.
- More than 90 percent reported having committed at least one of the 13 cheating behaviors.
- More than 55 percent reported saying nothing when they had benefited from an instructor's grading error.
- Nearly 50 percent reported having inappropriately collaborated on an individual assignment.
- Nearly 42 percent indicated copying from another student during a test.
Students who scored high on moral identity and also considered cheating to be morally wrong were the least likely to cheat. In contrast, the worst cheaters were the "moral" students who considered cheating to be an ethically justifiable behavior in certain situations.
"If they think it's wrong, they'll never do it," Reynolds told LiveScience. "If they think it's OK, they do it in spades."
The researchers found similar results when they surveyed 290 managers, asking them whether they had engaged in 17 workplace "no-no's," including using company services for personal use, padding an expense account and taking longer than necessary to do a job. The managers with moral identities were also most likely to engage in the sketchy office behavior.
"When people have a strong moral identity, they think of themselves as great moral people, their behavior tends to go to the extremes," Reynolds said.
In order to encourage students and managers to forego cheating in exchange for ethical behaviors, Reynolds suggests ethics education. Classes, newsletters and other means of communication should help organizations to communicate which behaviors are morally acceptable and which are not.
For managers recruiting new employees, just because a person identifies himself or herself as honest doesn't mean they won't cut corners.
"If you can recruit people with a moral identity and then train them appropriately, you'll get some of the best behavior you can imagine," Reynolds said.
For those who have been paying attention to the recent foibles of our Evangelical brothers and sisters, none of this is new. The most recent incarnation of this phenomenon is Evangelical leader Earl Paulk, pastor and bishop of the megachurch Chapel Hill Harvester Church in the heart of Jesusland, Decatur, Georgia. Ole Rev Paulk has made a living lying and fornicating virtually his entire ministerial career. When not telling us that we are going to burn in hell for our sins, he took to side projects like porking his interns, choir girls, and his brother's wife, ultimately impregnating the latter (who bore him a son, which until recently was considered the good pastor's nephew).
By DORIE TURNER, Associated Press Writer Mon Nov 19, 4:09 PM ET
DECATUR, Ga. - The 80-year-old leader of a suburban Atlanta megachurch is at the center of a sex scandal of biblical dimensions: He slept with his brother's wife and fathered a child by her.
Members of Archbishop Earl Paulk's family stood at the pulpit of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at a few Sundays ago and revealed the secret exposed by a recent court-ordered paternity test.
In truth, this is not the first — or even the second — sex scandal to engulf Paulk and the independent, charismatic church. But this time, he could be in trouble with the law for lying under oath about the affair.
The living proof of that lie is 34-year-old D.E. Paulk, who for years was known publicly as Earl Paulk's nephew.
"I am so very sorry for the collateral damage it's caused our family and the families hurt by the removing of the veil that hid our humanity and our sinfulness," said D.E. Paulk, who received the mantle of head pastor a year and a half ago.
D.E. Paulk said he did not learn the secret of his parentage until the paternity test. "I was disappointed, and I was surprised," he said.
Earl Paulk, his brother, Don, and his sister-in-law, Clariece, did not return calls for comment.
A judge ordered the test at the request of the Cobb County district attorney's office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which are investigating Earl Paulk for possible perjury and false-swearing charges stemming from a lawsuit.
The archbishop, his brother and the church are being sued by former church employee Mona Brewer, who says Earl Paulk manipulated her into an affair from 1989 to 2003 by telling her it was her only path to salvation. Earl Paulk admitted to the affair in front of the church last January.
In a 2006 deposition stemming from the lawsuit, the archbishop said under oath that the only woman he had ever had sex with outside of his marriage was Brewer. But the paternity test said otherwise.
So far no charges have been filed against Earl Paulk. District Attorney Pat Head and GBI spokesman John Bankhead would not comment.
The shocking results of the paternity test are speeding up a transformation already under way in the church after more than a decade of sex scandals and lawsuits involving the Paulks, D.E. Paulk said.
"It was a necessary evil to bring us back to a God-consciousness," said the younger Paulk, explaining that the church had become too personality-driven and prone to pastor worship.
The flashy megachurch began in 1960 with just a few dozen members in the Little Five Points neighborhood of . Now, it is in the suburbs on a 100-acre expanse, a collection of buildings surrounding a neo-Gothic cathedral.
For years the church was at the forefront of many social movements — admitting black members in the 1960s, ordaining women and opening its doors to gays.
At its peak in the early 1990s, it claimed about 10,000 members and 24 pastors and was a media powerhouse. By soliciting tithes of 10 percent from each member's income, the church was able to build a , two schools, a worldwide TV ministry and a $12 million sanctuary the size of a fortress.
Today, though, membership is down to about 1,500, the church has 18 pastors, most of them volunteers, and the Bible college and TV ministry have shuttered — a downturn blamed largely on complaints about the alleged sexual transgressions of the elder Paulks.
In 1992, a church member claimed she was pressured into a sexual relationship with Don Paulk. Other women also claimed they had been coerced into sex with Earl Paulk and other members of the church's administration.
The church countered with a $24 million libel suit against seven former church members. The lawsuit was later dropped.
Jan Royston, who left the church in 1992, started an online support group for former members to discuss their crushed faith and hurt feelings.
"This is a cult. And you escape from a cult," she said. "We all escaped."
These days, Earl Paulk has a much-reduced role at the cathedral, giving 10-minute lectures as part of Sunday morning worship each week.
"My uncle is 100 percent guilty, but his accusers are guilty as well," D.E. Paulk said, declining to talk further about the lawsuits.
For the readers who know the Bible, there is a Biblical precedent for this type of behavior. There was the Old Testament's Lot, who survived (if one believes in any of this) the sulfur at Sodom and Gomorrah, only to be inebriated and raped by his daughters (who thought after the destruction of the cities that the earth had come to an end, they were the last survivors, and needed to repopulate the earth). From this act, Lot bore himself two sons, who were also his grandchildren (sounds like a nice episode for Jerry Springer).
Then there was the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah was the founder of the ancient Israeli tribe of Judah, and he also was an incestuous stooge, getting busy with his daughter-in-law Tamar (who initially tricked Judah into the relationship by pretending to be a prostitute [you see, in the Bible, it is OK to act this way, so long as you think you are with a hooker]). According to the text, when Judah "confessed" his guilt over knocking up his daughter-in-law, God, Yahweh, or Whoever, became so impressed by Judah's sincerity that he not only forgave Judah but rewarded him with his own tribe and guaranteed he would have his "share in the future world." Knock up your daughter-in-law, while thinking you are with a prostitute, and go to heaven. Is it any wonder why Reverend Paulk behaved the way he did?