Psychological Science 2018, (2) 371-377 DOI:     ISSN: 0412-1961 CN: 21-1139/TG

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unethical behavior
psychological mechanism
moral self-concept
YU Ya-Ting
YU Yong
Article by Yu,Y.T
Article by Yu,y

Violate Knowingly? Factors and Psychological Mechanism of Intentional Unethical Behavior



Intentional unethical behavior is characterized of breaking the daily standards and deviating from the moral compass consciously, which is currently widespread in the public fields and private spaces and give rise to immense economical price and social cost. In this paper, we draw a process model of generating intentional unethical behavior from the perspective of self-concept maintenance theory and moral dissonance theory, which depicted the inducing factors and potential pre-violation and post-violation psychological mechanism. In psychology, behavioral ethics, management, as well as cognitive neuroscience field, loads of researchers have explored factors that would lead individuals to violate social norms consciously, conducting intentional unethical behavior, in specific culture and social contexts. This paper reviewed the influence of both individual factors and context factors on intentional unethical behavior respectively. Individual factor referred to characteristics or attributes possessed by people, including cognitive factors, personality factors, physical factors and unconscious factors. Context factor meant the external features people perceived in the process of perception of the outer world, including surrounding settings, warning cues, time cues and interpersonal interaction. What’s more, previous papers showed that most of individual factors, in essence, drove people to behave unethically because of improving motivation of gaining self-interest and impairing or exploiting self-control resources, during which context factors would buffer or enhance the effect. But how did these factors exert impact on people’s intentional unethical behavior? Two competing motivations, that is the motivation of maintaining moral self-concept and of grabbing the external interest, of human played a vital role. When facing temptations which would give us practical benefits by unethical behaviors or violations, in fact, people firstly perceived threats to moral self-concept. The motivation of maintaining the positive image of “I am a good person” would be reinforced and then pre-violation self-justification strategies (such as tokens preference, self-serving altruism and moral licensing) were expected to be adopted to buffer the inner conflict, which could help individual to find a balance or equilibrium between the two motivating forces. Eventually they would conduct unethical behavior in comfort zone, where they gain some financial benefit from behaving unethically but still maintain their positive self-concept in terms of being moral individuals. That means people would consciously avoid minor unethical behavior which would not take substantial and significant external interests for individual as well as major unethical behavior which would be at the expense of changing positive self-concept. After conducting unethical behavior, moral self-concept would be threatened and thus motivation of maintaining positive self-image would be activated again. In this situation, through specific post-violation self-justification strategies (such as moral cleansing, moral disengagement, motivated forgetting and moral hypocrisy), moral self-concept would eventually be protected and maintained. Future researches are expected to give more emphasis on exploring behavioral and psychological mechanisms, especially understanding and avoiding unethical behavior in the perspective of mental motivation and being aware of unconscious factors and processes. At the same time, longitudinal tracking method and unethical behavior that appeared in the Internet context are supposed to be paid more attention in the future.

Keywords unethical behavior   factors   psychological mechanism   moral self-concept  
Received 2017-03-16 Revised 2017-09-12 Online: 2018-03-20 
Corresponding Authors: YATING WANG
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