Personal Accountability for Dishonesty

Last week I listened to a research report from one of my colleagues in information technology who conducted a fascinating study about theft in the restaurant industry. This study identified five common methods that servers use to steal from customers, such as double charging for drinks. However, advances in information technology make it possible to detect patterns of dishonesty, and when they are detected employees can be observed more closely and confronted with their dishonesty.

After employees learned that their dishonesty could be detected, incidents of stealing declined by about seventy percent. This study concluded that employee theft represents a pathology of the organization rather than a pathology of the employees since companies could install internal control systems that are highly effective in detecting dishonesty. In short, inadequate control systems are more responsible for theft than dishonest employees.

The idea that dishonesty is determined more by the situation than by a personality trait has been around for a long time. In a series of studies on honesty from 1924 to 1928, Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May examined the behavior of 7000 children from 8-16 years of age. The children participated in about a dozen games that allowed observers to test their honesty. For example, in the planted-dime test each child was given a box containing various contents, including a dime which was supposed to be used in one of the puzzles. After the boxes were returned, the researchers checked to see if the dime had been stolen.

Hartshorne and May concluded that honesty is not a stable personal attribute; rather, it is determined by the situation—being honest in one situation was no indication that the same child would be honest in another situation. Their conclusion had a huge impact on subsequent thinking about personal accountability for one’s behavior. Shoplifting, embezzlement, and violence were attributed to dysfunctional environments such as poverty, broken homes, and bad neighborhoods.

Later research that examined Hartshorne and May’s data in greater depth found that their conclusions were not universally true; a small percent of the children demonstrated a general trait of honesty. These children generally came from homes where honesty had been taught as a general standard and where it had been consistently demonstrated and rewarded.

In the field of psychology, B. F. Skinner is recognized as one of the leading scholars to espouse the concept of environmental determinism. This concept claims that behavior is determined not by personality traits or free will but by environmental factors, especially the rewards and punishments associated with the behavior. Skinner illustrated the power of his ideas in a novel, Walden Two, which explained how a community could structure its social rewards to create a utopian planned society. These ideas have been developed by therapists and teachers and form the foundation of a change intervention called applied behavioral analysis.

The idea that the situation surrounding us will have an enormous influence on how we behave has become increasingly recognized throughout the behavioral sciences. Many studies have demonstrated that personality traits, such as honesty, altruism, and kindness, have a much smaller influence on how we act than the forces in the particular situation. Indeed, numerous studies have found that the maximum correlation is about .30 between a measured personality trait and manifestations of that behavior in a given setting. In social psychology, this is called the predictability ceiling.

The enormous influence of the environment on our behavior is not quite so surprising when we think more carefully about it. For example, even people who are kind and patient will eventually push back if they are continually mistreated and pushed enough. Likewise, the fraud model suggests that even extremely honest people will eventually succumb to fraud if they leave themselves in situations where they face intense situational pressures and have convenient opportunities to steal.

The crucial question is how our concept of personal accountability squares with research showing the impact of the environment. Is the concept of moral agency still a viable concept? If the situation has such an enormous influence on our behavior, are we still responsible for our actions? Our focus on situational influences seems to be eroding the idea that people are moral agents who are liable for what they do.

The concept of personal accountability declares that people are responsible for what they do. It does not deny the possibility that situational forces surround us and entice us to behave contrary to what we think we should do. Indeed, the presence of competing interests is essential for the concept of moral agency to be a meaningful concept.

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Our legal system holds people accountable for their actions; when thieves are caught stealing, they are convicted and punished for their crimes regardless of the environments from which they come. As a general rule, we do not punish a criminal’s family, friends, teachers, or ministers for failing to create a healthy environment. In only very limited cases have judges imposed punishments on parents when their children have committed serious crimes.

When I am faced with a moral choice between right and wrong, am I really free to choose what is right regardless of the social or economic consequences of my choice? My answer is yes. If my family, friends, and society are encouraging me to do what I know is wrong, am I still free to choose what is right? Again, my response is yes. And is it possible for me to reform my life and follow a different path even if I have a history of making bad choices because of previous moral weaknesses that have formed addictive behaviors? It may be extremely difficult, but again, the answer is yes. Ultimately, I am free to decide and I am accountable for my actions. $

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