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Know Yourself: Why Do We Do What's Wrong?

Among his varied other writing interests, Richard Parr aspires to creating interesting and inspiring stories about life.

Have you ever caught yourself going against your moral judgement to fit in?

Have you ever caught yourself going against your moral judgement to fit in?

Who isn't guilty of violating their own moral convictions on occasion? Actually the real question is not who does it but, why we do it?

For the sake of this article we are going to put aside arguments of relative-versus-absolute morality and instead limit our definition of moral error to those violations we (as individuals) commit in acting contrary to our own moral compass.

All guilty say 'Aye'. So, we all do wrong. Whether dishonesty on our time sheets or marital unfaithfulness, immoral (wrong) choices are a failing common to all humanity. Let's now look at some of the reasons why.

What Are the Reasons for Our Wrongdoing?

Listed below are some well-researched explanations for why humans decide to go against their own conscience to do what they would otherwise consider wrong. Also featured are supplemental research experiments to support some of the reasons. It should be noted that these are not "excuses" for wrongdoing, but influences that pressure (or tempt) us toward unethical behaviour. It might be said that the stronger the foundation of our moral convictions, the less likely it is to be shaken when tested; but also the greater our fall when it is.

  1. Conformity
  2. Hierarchical Authority
  3. Institutionalism
  4. Instant Gratification
  5. Anonymity and Deindividuation
  6. Conflict of Priorities
  7. Conflicting Convictions

1. Conformity

One of the strongest influences in society is that of social conformity. Sometimes we act opposite to our better judgement (including morally) because others are.

Almost unconsciously we run our options through the filter of social acceptance. What we choose to say and do is often dramatically influenced by our perception of how others will respond. People generally conform to the tolerances and intolerances of their society. Which s a mixed bag of good and bad, at best.

At it's worst, basing one's decisions upon the mercurial scale of social opinion is to risk gravitating to the lowest or most faulty moral decision making paradigm.

The Asch Conformity Experiments

The Asch conformity experiments were a series of studies conducted in the 1950s that demonstrated the power of conformity in groups. They are also known as the Asch paradigm.

In the experiment, students were asked to participate in a group "vision test." In reality, all but one of the participants were working for Asch (i.e. confederates), and the study was really about how the remaining student would react to their behavior.

2. Hierarchical Authority

“They told me to do it”

Most of us have been guilty of blaming others for our actions, especially when those blamed were perceived to have authority over us.

Relegating blame over matters of moral significance is common. From the child who says, "Dad says I could" (when they know mum said they couldn't), to Nazi death camp staff who laid the responsibility for their actions at the feet of their commanding officer. Humans have a tendency to let authority override better judgement; even common sense morals.

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Under what conditions would a person obey an authority, who commanded actions that went against conscience?

The Milgram Authority Experiment

In 1963 research was conducted to determine how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person. The lead researcher, Stanley Milgram, was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities for example, Germans in WWII.

Milgram Shock Study Explained in Video

3. Institutionalisation

“That's just the way things get done around here”

Institutionalisation refers to the process of embedding something within an organization, social system or society as a whole. An example would be a concept, a social role or a particular value or mode of behaviour. But what if immoral practices creep into the institutional culture we live in and abide by?

Incrementally (and oft rapidly) the institutionalised accept the immoral practice as normal and incorporate it into their own behaviour. Hence, we've had such practices as the slave trade, gladiatorial arenas, honour suicides etc.

When confronted by the wrongness of such, we blame the system everyone has to comply with.

The Stanford Prison Institutionalism Experiment

In 1971 the Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in which college students played the roles of prisoners or guards. After only six days, the guards became brutal and abusive toward prisoners, leading to the premature end of the experiment.

It was revealed that institutional forces and peer pressure can lead normal everyday people to disregard the potential harm of their actions on the others.

All men are liable to error, and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation to it.

— John Locke

4. Instant Gratification

This 'reason' operates most powerfully in concert with anger, greed and lust. When our passion for something is aroused, then we are more susceptible to making immoral choices.

Some of the most extreme crimes have been committed in order to fulfill a desire as quickly as possible. There have been cases where people strike out when angry so as to satisfy a desire for revenge. Someone may violate their sexual mores to gain immediate sexual release. Others have dishonestly acquired money so as to get what we want.

The Marshmallow Experiment

More than 40 years ago, Walter Mischel, PhD, a psychologist now at Columbia University, explored self-control in children with a simple but effective test. His experiments using the “marshmallow test,” as it came to be known, laid the groundwork for the modern study of self-control. Though this experiment focused on children, the instant gratification mindset influences adults also.

5. Anonymity and Deindividuation

“No one knows who I am”

Research shows that anonymity encourages immoral behaviour. Whether alone or as a face in a crowd, untraceability of action can becomes a catalyst for wrongdoing.When an individual loses their sense of self-awareness within a groups activities, it is referred to as a state of deindividuation.

Many immoral acts are committed that would otherwise not be if the perpetrators could be singled out and identified. Internet bullying, vandalism and arson, mob violence and genocide are all examples of such actions.

In 1974, Harvard anthropologist John Watson evaluated 23 cultures to determine whether warriors who changed their appearance—such as with war paint or masks—treated their victims differently. As it turned out, 80% of warriors in these cultures were found to be more destructive—for example, killing, torturing or mutilating their victims—than unpainted or unmasked warriors.

The Deindividuation Experiment

Although the video below is lengthy, it is extremely entertaining and well worth the watch.

Studies have shown that there is a degradation in a group’s collective intellect. It seems that when groups are formed, they always regress to a particular mental or psychological state where the capacity to analyse issues critically dwindle and the faculty to be rational disappears

Because there is a lack of adult thinking, the psychological state of a group degrades even more if there is anonymity. This state is characterized by a decrease of self-evaluation causing anti-normative behaviour.

6. Conflict of Priorities

When our conscience tells us one thing, but our desires tell us another, we have a choice to make. Great internal struggles can occur as a result of moral conviction becoming an inconvenience to personal ambition. Ultimately, our actions will indicate which was victorious, but they won't necessarily put an end to the battle.

Understandably, the stronger the moral conviction, the greater the conflicting "want" that hopes to challenge it must be. Such internal dialogue might include:

Is the exam so important to me that I would cheat to pass? Is my attraction to that person so strong as to justify being unfaithful to my spouse? Though my sister is in desperate need of financial help, the only money I have is for the new car I've got my eye on.

Assess your priorities before taking risks.

Assess your priorities before taking risks.

7. Conflicting Convictions

We'll end this article on the 'ethical dilemma' reason for wrongdoing. This occurs when our moral certainty becomes divided within us, such that whatever we chose we risk choosing wrong.

Often such dilemmas hinge on determining the better of two choices, knowing that undesired consequences can result from each. Again, such dilemma are often made more difficult by an underlying and questionable bias that the individual is aware of and struggling to square with.

Examples of scenarios that can cause conflicting convictions include: capital and corporal punishment, abortion, medical research (e.g. vivisection), union strikes, activism, social revolutions, jury duty, etc.


27 Psychological Reasons Why Good People Do Bad Things

The Power of Peer Pressure: The Asch Experiment

Why Do Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things?

A Framework for Moral Decision-Making

The Moral Life of Babies

Stanford Prison Experiment

Morality Defined

The Asch Experiments

The Milgram Experiment

Anonymity in Group Psychology

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Richard Parr


manatita44 from london on September 06, 2014:

Good to know you. A real change from the clueless stuff that I read almost every day. The ones who know best. Know who I mean? May you be well and live well by His Grace. Let us pray for one another. Salaam!

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on September 05, 2014:

@manatita44 ~ Yes, considerable research went into this hub, but being a subject that I find very interesting, it was a pleasure to delve into. I struggle also, everyday reminded of my need for God's grace in Christ. Thank you for your praise. God bless.

manatita44 from london on September 05, 2014:

You must have worked on this one for a while bro. Not only well written with a great deal of home truths. I so struggle with my own demons! I appreciate your clarity and sincerity, and commend your inner Light. God speed!

Clark Cook from Vancouver ara, British Columbia, Canada on May 15, 2014:

Parrster -- when I can get YOU dancing around the fire just close enough to keep warm, but in real danger of getting burned--I know the discussion is headed in a productive direction. The key was your interesting distinction between insanity and depravity.. You said that determining WHICH applied to the baby skinner might affect our judgment of him, BUT NOT NECESSARILY OUR FINAL VERDICT. In other words, we could come to the conclusion that this guy is cmpletely insane, hence not responsible at all for his hideous acts........and STILL

exterminate him like a mad dog in the street. The issue is tribal survival. If we put him in treatment, and nurture him, and turn him around, we know in our guts there is nonetheless TOO strong a possibility he'll commit some further hideous act once we've "cured" him. I am a very compassionate, caring, socially responsible person. I try to find The Good in everyone I meet--but I can see a situation where aIi would say "kill him".

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 14, 2014:

@Pamela~ lovely to see you here. Yes, I believe we can become more morally finessed with age; possibly due to all the mistakes we made when younger. Appreciate you comment and vote. God bless

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 14, 2014:

This is a very intersting hub about good and evil and much more. I think now when I make decisions I know from that feel in my gut whether it is a good or bad decision. I certainly did not feel that way 20 years ago. As my faith and grown, and yes I have aged, decisions have become easier. Your hub gives everyone many things to think about with all the interesting and excellent quotes. Voted up!

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 14, 2014:

@Moonforth ~ As promised, I've given some thought to your baby Skinner scenario. Here are some initial thoughts. There are two main considerations: The morality of the perpetrators actions, and the morality of my response to their actions. Of course, improbable hypothetical examples, geared to elicit extreme emotion, aren't adequate for making general conclusions regarding morality. Some scenarios do not present an absence of morality as much as they do an absence of sanity. Therefore any response is aimed not at the perpetrators ethics, but their illness. Some illnesses are beyond cure. I've read examples of soldiers during war, snapping from the stress, then committing atrocities that in any other scenario would be considered diabolical. These men are rarely judged as immoral, but rather victims of the inhuman strains of war. Therefore, one question to ask is, is the baby Skinner depraved or insane? This may effect our judgement of them; though not necessarily our final verdict.

Clark Cook from Vancouver ara, British Columbia, Canada on May 12, 2014:

What I would DO with the baby skinner (caught in the act happily skinning away) is execute the bastard on the spot. Which would be a dramatic illustration of my belief that a handful of acts are so heinous that the perpetrator has abrogated his membership in the human race and, for the good of the tribe's future, must be exterminated. If you agree, then we are both admitting that moral imperatives MAY require circumstantial adjustment. Which, philosophically, is a pretty mind-blowing cop-out !

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 11, 2014:

@Moonfroth ~ You are quite right, perspectives on morality vary from individual to individual. That is why I steered away from declaring any absolute moral standard. I don't have the knowledge or capacity to convince anyone of what is right or wrong outside the nuance of my own convictions, and I won't even try. That said, I will spend some time thinking about the scenario you've presented and see what I come up with; what to do with the baby skinner and his spectators?

Clark Cook from Vancouver ara, British Columbia, Canada on May 11, 2014:

Okay Parrster, I'm working on my third cup of coffee, so my thinker is thinking and my nerves are nerving and, with nothing but love in my heart, I want to take you to task for a couple of points. First of all, general vocabulary--right, wrong, good, bad, basic good, basic bad, moral, moral values, basic moral values, morals....just for starters. All of these terms designate specific behavioural or belief issues. They are certainly not interchangeable; in fact, they need to be used with large dollops of caution . The semantics here would more than occupy a Hub of its own, suffice to say that a moral wrong is not necessarily bad, and a good act can be construed as bad. Often, as others have pointed out, circumstances or context will implicitly outline the defining limits, but sometimes abstract concepts come into play--such as the existence of Absolute Evil in the form of Satan as a marker of acceptable/unacceptable moral behaviour among certain groups of Christians.

'Way too big an issue to take on here! What I DID want to get into a bit is your statement "every choice of right over wrong entails some degree of internal battle." I would agree on abstract issues that carry no burden of action--for example, DISCUSSING the moral culpability of an impoverished father who breaks into a pharmacy to steal life-saving medicine for his dying child. The "internal battle" here might be brief, but one can well imagine it taking place. If, however, a man in an adjoining apartment was skinning babies alive and charging admission for spectators to watch--would you have an "internal battle" about what to do? Now WHY is the mechanism of moral action so easy to resolve in the one example, but much more complex in the other? Perhaps kicking that around for awhile might get us closer to the core of this complex problem......

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 10, 2014:

@Jodah ~ thanks mate. I agree with you, I think the average person can determine basic moral values. Appreciate you giving your time to read, comment and vote.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on May 10, 2014:

Very interesting hub Parster, and food for thought. You are right, no one is perfect and we have all been tempted by different things. What's right and wrong changes and depends on what society, country and time we are living in. Values and morals change from one generation to the next, but I think the average person can judge for themselves the difference between basic right and wrong. Derren Brown's experiments are always interesting.Voted up, interesting and useful.

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 08, 2014:

@FlourishAnyway ~ I like your pragmatic approach. I too think many moral issues are common sense choices. If only the options didn't keep getting in the way :)

Appreciated your reading and commenting

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 08, 2014:

@Moonfroth ~ thanks for the poetical recommendation, for those interested I provide a link to John Donne's works below.

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 08, 2014:

@MsDora ~ I think struggle is a very apt word to use. Every choice of right over wrong entails some degree of internal battle, such that whichever facet of our nature we choose to uphold, requires simultaneously suppressing the other. Thanks for reading and commenting.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 08, 2014:

A thorough review on a weighty subject. There are so many forces telling us these days what is right but often it's the easy and immediate thing that wins. I prefer to look at right and wrong more as "choices with consequences," some more dramatic and far reaching than others. The challenge is trying to understand your options in the moment and prioritize the multiple effects.

Clark Cook from Vancouver ara, British Columbia, Canada on May 08, 2014:

John Donne agonized over the flesh - spirit dichotomy and, thank God! , captured his agony in some of the most powerful poetry of doubt/faith in the language. If some readers here are unfamiliar with his work--treat yourself!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 08, 2014:

Very deep subject. Choosing the do right thing seems like never-ending struggle. Like the great quotes throughout the article and your insights leave us much to think about. Thank you.

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 08, 2014:

@ryskon ~ Hey there Luke, hope you are well. I agree with you in a sense. But would say that our behaviour at any given moment reflects the strength or fragility of our beliefs, rather than their existence or non-existence.

That may sound schizophrenic, but that is my point, we are of two minds, or natures; the bible refers to them as the spiritual and the carnal. Our behaviour reflects the degree to which we trust one over the other.

By default we tend to the carnal, which is hedonistic in its influence over us. But we also can choose a higher 'way'. However, though we can believe (intellectually) in a 'way' that is superior, we can only know it is in the proving of it, i.e. entrusting our choices to its guidance. So it becomes a matter of what we trust. Beliefs, then, can be reinforced by our actions, or weakened by them, depending on the nature we heed. Of course, eventually, all beliefs fade away if ignored long enough, but what replaces them is not necessarily unbelief, but uncaring.

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 08, 2014:

@Moonfroth ~ Corny joke, I'll tell my kids and see what they think; they'll probably groan. I too am working on a novel. Am close to completing story, but then the hard work starts of proofreading, editing etc, etc. I self published my first two novels but am a lousy self-marketer, so not much happening in the way of financial reward there.

Hope your efforts give you better returns.

ryskon on May 08, 2014:

I actually have surprisingly few issues with the content you've walked us through here, Parrster; I take serious issue, however, with the first point you make in this article. I don't believe it's possible for someone to violate their moral conscience; not in any day to day sense. What we have today (and perhaps always have had) are people who have 'beliefs' that allow them to sustain the fiction that they are moral, when in actual fact our behaviour is precisely where we locate our beliefs. This may seem trite; let me hone in on the radical nature of the statement. I don't believe there's any respect in which beliefs make sense outside of behaviour; there's a very real sense, however, in which the actions I choose *are* my beliefs; I always act in the way I believe to be right at any given moment in time.

I can say 'The correct method for the consumption of coffee is from a white coffee mug', and then consciously choose to drink coffee from a boot as a 'violation' of my belief, but actually what I've demonstrated is not that I can violate my beliefs, but that I don't really believe my beliefs in the first place. Not in any meaningful or relevant sense, anyway.

I can pray, believing that God values the work I do in a church building and won't allow any harm to come to it, but I still take out an insurance policy; because deep down, perhaps deep enough that I don't even recognise it, I know that God's thoughts about my work have nothing to do with whether my church building gets hit by lightning, or flooded in a storm.

So I agree; there are lots of contingent factors that play a part in why we make the decisions we make from day to day. This doesn't absolve me of responsibility for those decisions; in fact, this recognition of actions as beliefs makes me deeply responsible with no safety net for exactly who I am.

Clark Cook from Vancouver ara, British Columbia, Canada on May 08, 2014:

I must tell you this one: when i was studying Chsucer, a student asked the Prof which of the order of clerics roamed the countryside and which stayed in the monasteries. The Prof told us this story--a particular monastery was famous throughout the land for the superb quality of its fish 'n chips. One day a man who loved the dish tapped on the wooden shutter, and when it slid back he enquired of the hooded cleric on the other side, "are you the Fish Friar?" And the cleric replied, "No, I'm the Chip Monk." Obviously, I've never forgotten that dumb story....and never forgotten the Monks are the Insiders.

Thanks for asking about my writing. Poems posted on Hupages are regarded by the majority of publishers as 'published" work, because HP is accessible to millions of viewers, I post a lot of poetry on The Poetic Forum, an invitation-only hence CLOSED workshop venue on Linkedin that the public cannot access. Work posted there is NOT regarded as 'published'. I'm also working on a novel, which is about 2/3 written in rough. Don't have an Agent. Don't have a Publisher. The piece mght well just be a personal project for enjoyment only. How about YOU?

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 08, 2014:

@Moonfroth ~ Ahh, your argument is more clear now. Here's to hoping your son doesn't become a Monk :)

On another note, are you writing anywhere other than Hubpages? I just haven't seen you around for a while.

Clark Cook from Vancouver ara, British Columbia, Canada on May 07, 2014:

Parrster--thank you for your--as always--thoughtful response.

I recognize the fragility of that point in the argument. As you know, i don't believe in God, but as a Father of five I know the deep connectivity I feel for all, and i agree that a hurt one committed against him or herself would be a hurt to me. A sort of moral umbilical cord would guarantee that. I DID, however, qualify the wrong done to oneself as a wrong that ABSOLUTELY does no harm to another. For example, if my child smoked cigarettes in monkish seclusion so that I never found out about it, i could not reasonably assert that that action did me harm. That, of course, would be rather like the argument of the Empiricists, would it not? Nothing is real until I perceive it so. If a tree falls in the forest a hundred miles from human ears....does it make a noise? Can such thinking be applied to the moral life?

Faith Reaper from southern USA on May 07, 2014:

Yes, if it were not for my faith and trust in God, well, who knows where I would be. Praise Him! God bless, Faith Reaper

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 07, 2014:

@Faith Reaper ~ Yes, those experiments are fascinating to watch, and you will find the longer video worthwhile I think. As you say, the golden rule gets much lip service, but too little time in many lives (including my own). I find that one great advantage of accepting God as the source of my moral nature, is that it reinforces my resolve to live morally regardless of circumstance. Of course, trust plays a big part in there too.

Thanks so much for your wonderful thoughts and votes.

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 07, 2014:

@Moonfroth ~ Lovely to hear from you again. I think that is one advantage of age, to learn from our many past mistakes. Sounds like you've learned well ;)

I will take your last comment to task just a little (I know you love debate). As a parent I would not want my child to adopt a mindset that said, "As long as I do no harm to anyone or anything other than myself, I do no wrong." Every wrong my child commits against themselves, is a wrong I, too, feel and am hurt by. As a a believer in God, I apply that understanding to His relationship with my choices and actions. As with a pro-created child, so too as a created being, I cannot assume to be morally independent of my Father.

As always, thanks for reading and commenting my friend.

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 07, 2014:

@Frank ~ Ah, you've asked the question this article doesn't address, to what do we attribute our moral natures? To my thinking we were either designed to be moral beings, or, we developed a moral nature somehow. Both ideas have their difficulties, but after everything I've read on the subject, I chose design.

A recent interesting study on the morality of babies seems to indicate we are born with a moral connectedness.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on May 07, 2014:

Fascinating read here on good verses evil! I really enjoyed your presentation and found all of the experiments interesting to say the least. I do believe that we are all capable of both good and evil depending on the circumstances, environment and our mental state. In general, it is always best to implement the Golden Rule, but as we all know if we have lived this life long enough, others do not seem to even know of such or care! Oops, there goes that blame aspect you are writing of here : )

I, like moonfroth, up there, really cannot add anything to this superb hub as you have covered the topic so well. I will return to view the one long video as it is so late at the moment. Your choice of imagery is excellent as well.

Brilliant article. Up and more, tweeting, pinning and sharing.


Clark Cook from Vancouver ara, British Columbia, Canada on May 07, 2014:

There is little to add to the content of this thorough and superbly presented Hub. I have no desire to even try. You did, however, encourage us to keep it personal, focused on our own actions rather than debate the great abstractions Good and Evil etc. I can honestly say that I rarely commit an act that I know is wrong, and I know will likely cause pain or distress to another person, When i DO unwittingly commit such acts, I make earnest attempt to remedy the situatio. Where I REALLY fall down is committing wrongful acts that are harmful to ME. The most notable of these is smoking. I don't smoke much (rationalization), except now and again when I get drinking beer wih my sons (baldfaced lie), and I'll do just about anything to turn aside the long-term wrong so that I can enoy the short-term pleasure. I am careful to never moke around kids or pets or people who don't smoke (just about everyone). I suppose an argument could be made to the effect that if you do something that ABSOLUTELY does no harm to anyone or anything other than yourself that the concept/word "wrong" should NOT be applied to your action. A sort of reversal (with a half twist?) of the Golden Rule.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on May 07, 2014:

really interesting and a make you think hub.. but what's really right.. or wrong.. I mean who makes the rule.. in the animal kingdom there are no right and wrong, just weak and strong.. same with the human.. I dunno.. but this hub gave me more conflicting questions than answers LOL very well presented my friend :)

Richard Parr (author) from Australia on May 07, 2014:

@Billybuc ~ Yes, not a topic to be tackled when weary. Your comment about being raised by nuns reminds me of another quote by William Hazlitt, "We find many things to which the prohibition of them constitutes the only temptation."

Thanks for reading and commenting. Sleep well.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 07, 2014:

I blame it all on being taught by nuns. :)

All silliness aside, this is an excellent article about a subject much too heavy for me to tackle at the end of the day.

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