We tend to think that unethical behaviors like cheating, stealing and lying are restricted to a specific group of people, perhaps to those with traits that make them more prone to commit fraud or deceive others. Narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths come to mind. However, studies[1] showed that although some people are indeed more inclined to cheat, almost everyone feels tempted to cheat from time to time. Think about a situation where you felt tempted to cheat, or even when your behavior actually fell short of what you would expect from yourself. If you are honest with yourself, you will probably be able to easily recover one of those moments. Interestingly, there are some unsuspected factors that may have played a crucial role on whether you put a break on that unethical thought or actually engaged in it and went off course.

We all desire to be moral individuals. Knowing which apparently unrelated factors are pressuring us to go off course and what we can do to manage them are important steps towards a more meaningful and ethical life. With that in mind, let’s look at the 5 unsuspected causes of unethical behavior and the strategies you can put in place to prevent such behavior.

1. You surround yourself with fake items

A neon sign advertising fake items, representing the influence of using fake items on unethical behavior.

The expression “fake it until you make it” has made headlines, is the key takeaway message of many books and expert talks, and has lead many people to fake it in the hope they would make it. Faking it until you make it is partially true in the sense that it helps you to develop a mindset and a set of beliefs and feelings around the idea that you can achieve your goals. For example, by doing something so simple as to adopt an open and expansive body posture, your thoughts and feelings change accordingly[2]. You end up more confident in your ability to achieve something important for you. That is great!

However, when you extend this idea to the things that you buy (things like glasses, pens, and clothes) you may be inadvertently increasing your risk of behaving unethically. Why? When we surround ourselves with fake items or items that pretend to be something they are not, we end up felling inauthentic and fraudulent[3]. The same way that beliefs and feelings around the idea that you can achieve your goals help you achieve your goals, when you develop feelings and beliefs around the idea that you are inauthentic and fraudulent you put yourself in a position where you can more easily cheat, lie or steal. This effect is so relevant that when you feel inauthentic you can even start seeing others as cheaters and liars.

The key differentiator seems to be whether you are faking something that is empowering to you and makes you feel better (things like your posture, or the way you talk to other people) or you are faking something that looks good but feels wrong (things like using counterfeit products, or pretending something is more expensive than it really is).

You may say that it might pay off to use a fake product only for a limited time, during let’s say a job interview. Based on this evidence and our own experience, we disagree. Let me tell you a personal story. A few years ago I was interviewed for a prestigious academic position in a leading University. At the time, I could only afford a poorly fitted polyester suit that was cheap and looked cheap. When I entered the interview room everyone was using expensive, good quality suits. I could tell that they didn’t look impressed by the way I was dressed – some of them even took notes upon my entrance. At that moment I felt slightly insecure – after all first impressions matter – and noticed that my body was reacting to that insecurity as I felt shrinking. I immediately corrected my posture, remembered myself that I was being genuine, and told myself that while the suit was a liability I had many other things on my side. That gave me the confidence to address the clothes issue directly and to refocus the audience on what I thought was most important – my competencies and achievements. During the presentation I said something like “I hope that all the polyester I am using today doesn’t get on fire with all the burning ideas I am presenting”. They laughed and some of them probably even empathized with me given that they could have been in a similar situation in the past. It became clear that although I was not dressing at the level they expected, I was aware of it for the future and I conveyed that I could deal with slightly uncomfortable situations graciously. They ended up making me an offer.

Takeaway: Reflect on what you are about to “fake”. Is it something that makes you feel authentic and genuine, or something that is causing you discomfort and inauthentic feelings? The first can help you achieve your goals ethically; the second sidetrack you to cheating and deceiving others.

2. You make important decisions late in the day

An artistic interpretation of the ethical implications of making important decisions late in the day, with three elephants showing signs of being too tired to make ethical decisions.

We frequently decide on important issues late in the day. Maybe it is because in the morning we are too busy rushing for work or taking care of kids for school. At work a similar pattern is common. Many of us like to catch up on what happened during the night or to start focusing on urgent work we have to do. To start working on things that are important for your goals is an effective way to start your day, as long as you do not delay important meetings or decisions to the afternoon.

Being morally engaged and ethical is demanding and we need to be at our peak to be able to fully understand and deal with a complex issue in an ethical manner[4]. By prioritizing mundane activities early in the morning you become fatigued, thus depleting your resources to deal with complex tasks such as important decisions on ethical issues or with ethical ramifications.

The same happens when you had a rough week with little sleep[5]. You might have had an important task to finish with a tight deadline or you had something in your health or private life that was worrying you. Those who don’t get enough sleep tend to cheat more at work, simply because they do not have all the energy and self-control[6] required to deal with such complex issues.

If you have a good night of sleep, you will behave better, particularly in the next morning and, as a consequence, sleep without worries or feelings of guilt the following night. And the positive cycle should repeat. The bad news is that people without a moral compass tend to behave badly regardless of how much sleep they had or the time of day[7].

Takeaway: Be aware that the time of the day matters for how ethical you and others are. Try as much as possible to book important meetings or those with ethical ramifications for early in the morning or shortly after you and your team wake up. Also, try to avoid important decisions when you are tired or overloaded due to little sleep. Try to sleep well for at least one night before making an important decision. If the meeting needs to take place late in the day, try to take a break before the meeting doing something that works for your recovery – many people report that taking a walk or a short nap helps. Having a coffee before making a decision with ethical ramifications can also help since it improves your alertness, giving you more resources to make ethical decisions.

What about the worst case scenario where you are exhausted, the coffee machine is broken and there is no time for a nap before the 5pm meeting? Well, if you are exhausted make sure others around you are not[8]. We are all influenced by others to some extent, and in tough moments their guidance is crucial for how (un)ethical our behavior is.

3. You use sunglasses all the time

A depiction of how darkness influences unethical behavior, showing a chicken with sunglasses in the middle of other chickens without sunglasses.

Have you ever noticed that the typical cartoon image of someone behaving badly entails a dark room with a dimmed light? Also, do you feel comfortable having a serious conversation with someone wearing sunglasses?

There are many possible explanations for these phenomena. One of them is that people tend to lie and cheat more when they are in the darkness[9]. Simple things like dimming the lights, closing the window curtains, or even wearing sunglasses often gives us the illusion of anonymity and invisibility. When darkness impairs our vision we tend to automatically generalize that impairment and expect that others will also have difficulty seeing, inspecting and paying attention to us. We see this idea pushed to the extreme in young children: when they close their eyes they believe no one can see them.

The idea that invisibility, or its illusion, corrupts goes back to a myth reported by Plato, 360 BC[10]. The story goes as follows. After a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible, he goes to the castle, seduces the Queen, conspires to get rid of the King and ends up occupying the throne of Lydia. It is difficult to resist the temptations of invisibility, and a dark room creates that illusion. Research shows that a well illuminated room breaks that illusion and can reduce unethical behavior and cheating by about one third[11].

Many years ago I had an enlightening conversation with a friend that worked part-time in a night bar. She told me that the business of night bars was extremely deceiving and that you should trust nobody. At the time I thought she was simply tired from studying at the university during the day and working at the bar during the night, and as a consequence overreacting to an isolated event. While I still think she was exaggerating and that the majority of people working at night bars are honest, I understand that working several hours under dimmed lights and depleting noise might tempt some people to cheat and lie.

Takeaway: Check if your work environment is abundantly illuminated. If you cannot change the luminosity around you, make sure you have reminders of your values at hand. By keeping your standards at hand you become more likely to remember them when unsuspicious things are out of their way to put you off track.

4. You have ample foreign experiences

The departure of a plane, representing the link between foreign experiences and unethical behavior.

About 5 years ago, a few of us were chatting with the Human Resources director of a large multinational about the benefits of going abroad for young adults (those obtaining their University degree, for example). She told us that going abroad during a semester or so was important, but not enough. Her company had a program in place were young people were expected to go to at least another country for an internship. This company is not alone. For example, the European Commission’s Erasmus program sponsors experiences abroad for millions of European youngsters.

There are good reasons to spend some time abroad working or studying. For example, being exposed to behaviors, values, and conventions different from yours can give you the capacity to integrate different perspectives and the flexibility to adopt new behaviors. In turn, this enhanced mental flexibility and capacity to integrate divergent ideas improves your creativity and reduces your tendency to stereotype. With the rise of globalization, these competencies are valued and even required whether you are an entrepreneur or you work in a multinational company. So, what is the caveat of having ample foreign experiences?

You can end up generalizing the mental flexibility you developed during foreign experiences to morality[12]. By being exposed to different codes of conduct and values, the clear line between right and wrong (that you might have had before your foreign experiences) becomes blurred, subjective, and relative. Since you no longer see things as right or wrong, you become more inclined to accept and justify, in yourself and others, behaviors that are unethical.

Takeaway: Having ample foreign experiences can leave you seeing morality in a relative and culturally dependent way. This relativism puts you in danger of behaving unethically. Individual effectiveness comes from having the flexibility to understand when to adopt others’ viewpoints and when to remain grounded on your personal values. Clearly separating domains (having both the flexibility to understand others’ perspectives and the firmness to stick to your own moral values) helps harvesting the benefits of foreign experiences and avoiding its shady side.

5. You live in a, literally or figuratively, polluted area

A polluted and smoky environment, illustrating the influence of pollution on unethical behavior.

Air pollution and unethical behavior

According to the World Health Organization[13], 4 out of 10 deaths from lung disease or cancer are attributable to air pollution; and 1 out of 4 deaths from stroke are attributable to – you guessed it – air pollution. Recent estimates even indicate that about 8.8 million people die every year from exposure to polluted air[14].

In a world where 9 out of 10 people breathe polluted air, are the negative consequences of pollution limited to the health domain? Unfortunately, it looks like air pollution also influences our tendency to engage in unethical behavior, including criminal activities[15]. There are three main explanations for this. First, air pollution tends to lower our levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is a key inhibitor controlling our impulsive and aggressive behavior. In a nutshell, while serotonin goes down, unethical, impulsive and aggressive behavior goes up. Second, air pollution, particularly ozone, can also elevate testosterone (at least in rats). High levels of this hormone increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior and violent crime.

Finally, air pollution can leave you more anxious due to increased oxidative stress and inflammation in your body. Also, seeing people around you with serious air pollution related health problems is another, more psychological, source of anxiety[16]. Anxiety is an emotional building block of our defense system – it mobilizes resources when we are under threat so we can defend ourselves. However, the defenses we put in place when we are anxious (due to a real or an imaginary threat) are not always ethical[17]. Because we want to survive and accumulate as many resources as we can to deal with the threat, we become focused on our own self-interests and not so much on the behaviors that the larger community considers acceptable or on our moral principles. Unless we do something (check the takeaway), in these circumstances, unethical behavior starts waving around the corner for many of us.

Let me illustrate this with a sad event that one of my dearest friends recently faced. After the death of a family member due to, supposedly, the high levels of pollution of the city they lived in, he wanted to do “whatever it takes, really, whatever it takes, to take my family to the country side”. There is nothing wrong with these words, per se, but the way in which he articulated them, the context in which they were said, and the look in his eyes were a red flag to me. Being one of my closest friends I had to say something to make sure he would not derail in this stressful situation, while also valuing and supporting his new goal. My response was something around the lines of “great, what you want is clear; don’t forget to clearly define how you want to achieve that goal and the lines I am sure you do not want to cross in the process”. This response was far from perfect. A not so close friend or a person who did not know me well could even take offense. But it allowed us to move from there and he started looking for ways to pursue his meaningful goal that were fully aligned with his ethical values. When everything in our control fails, having someone or something reminding us of our best self is a powerful thing to dodge unethical behavior.

Figurative pollution and unethical behavior

What about polluted social environments? Does an environment packed with figurative pollution like generalized corruption, rule breaking and/or political fraud have consequences for ethical behavior?

Most of us have a deep rooted tendency to be honest and ethical. This tendency is so important that behaving unethically has multiple psychological costs associated. For example, the self-image and identity of someone who behaved unethically is usually shaken or even scattered. However, when you are surrounded by cheating, lying and other unethical behaviors, you become largely desensitized to those behaviors, to the point that some level of unethical behavior becomes normal, justifiable, and even expected. In these environments, bending or breaking a rule is no longer a threat to your honest identity and positive self-image. This happens because with time, step by step, these polluted environments change your reference point for what is right or wrong. Since we largely benchmark what is moral based on what we see around us[18], it is easy to deceive or fool ourselves into thinking that something that is clearly wrong is actually acceptable.

These things do not happen overnight, though. They take place gradually. An abruptly large unethical behavior would likely raise your red flags and you would be able to hit the break just in time. However, bending a small rule in a corrupted environment does not raise your personal red flags and you simply do not notice what is going on. With time, step by step, and small unethical behavior after small unethical behavior, many reach a level that would leave a Machiavellian psychopath proud.

Interestingly, witnessing norm violations in one area can leave you more inclined to violate other, unrelated, norms and to behave unethically. For example, under normal circumstances, when people have the opportunity to steal something, they rarely do it. However, when in a littered environment, 1 in 4 people are actually likely to steal, given the opportunity[19]. This happens because norm violations spread and generalize to other things. Doing what is right and appropriate usually takes effort and, in many cases, is almost the opposite of doing what feels good. When we see inappropriate behavior (let’s say a littered street), many of us feel like we get a free pass to do whatever feels good, regardless of its appropriateness. In contrast, when appropriate behavior is around us (let’s say a clean and tidy home), our inhibitions remain in place and our best behavior can shine through.

Takeaway: The level of pollution of your environment has implications for how unethically you behave. We are not going to make your eyes role by saying something like “move to the country side or to a less polluted area”. Instead, consider exercising regularly and reviewing your diet with a nutritionist, which are useful ways to keep anxiety at check and to maintain appropriate levels of serotonin[20]. If pollution takes the form of a corrupted environment, regularly exercise your values. For example, have the courage to look yourself at the mirror and remind yourself of what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it (e.g., your moral values, your reference points). If you live in a littered house, consider tidying things up (life changing and inspiring words, right?). Not only you send a clear message to yourself that some rules are important, but you also end up exercising a bit. It is a win-win approach, we would say.


As an exercise, think a little bit on your life and try to identify unsuspicious things that made you derail. We all have our own things. If you don’t mind sharing, please comment bellow. It might help one of us realizing something that we have been missing and make the world (or at least our world) a better place. If you think this might help a friend, share the post.


Unethical behavior is a complex issue and sometimes small, unsuspicious things, deviate us from our paths. Things like using fake items, making decisions with ethical ramifications when you are tired, working under dimmed light, having foreign experiences, or living in a polluted area can leave you more inclined to behave unethically. Of course, not everyone in these circumstances engages in unethical behavior and this post is not meant to give you excuses to feel better for past misbehaviors or to behave unethically in the future – at the end of the day, we are all responsible for what we do. However, now that you are equipped with this knowledge you hopefully have more control to change things for the better when you feel you are about to derail ethically for some obfuscated reason. And that is the most important part.

As always, thank you for investing your time with Managing Life at Work. It has been a pleasure to share this information with you. See you all in the next post. Until then, keep an eye on the unsuspicious things that are making you go off course ethically.

References and further reading

  1. ^ Gino, F. (2015). “Understanding ordinary unethical behavior: Why people who value morality act immorally.Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 107-111.
  2. ^ Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., and Yap, A. J. (2010). “Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368.
  3. ^ Gino, F., Norton, M. I., and Ariely, D. (2010). “The counterfeit self: The deceptive costs of faking it.Psychological Science, 21, 712-720.
  4. ^ Gino, F., Schweitzer, M. E., Mead, N. L., and Ariely, D. (2011). “Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behavior.Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 115, 191-203.
  5. ^ Barnes, C. M., Schaubroeck, J., Huth, M., and Ghumman, S. (2011). “Lack of sleep and unethical conduct.Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 115, 169-180.
  6. ^ Christian, M. S., and Ellis, A. P. J. (2011). “Examining the effects of sleep deprivation on workplace deviance: A self-regulatory perspective.Academy of Management Journal, 54, 913-934.
  7. ^ Kouchaki, M., and Smith, I. H. (2014). “The morning morality effect: the influence of time of day on unethical behavior.Psychological Science, 25, 95-102.
  8. ^ Welsh, D. T., Ellis, A. P., Christian, M. S., and Mai, K. M. (2014). “Building a self-regulatory model of sleep deprivation and deception: The role of caffeine and social influence.Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(6), 1268-1277.
  9. ^ Doleac, J. L., and Sanders, N. J. (2015). “Under the cover of darkness: How ambient light influences criminal activity.Review of Economics and Statistics, 97, 1093-1103.
  10. ^ Wikipedia “Ring of Gyges.” Accessed in September 2019.
  11. ^ Zhong, C. B., Bohns, V. K., and Gino, F. (2010). “Good lamps are the best police: Darkness increases dishonesty and self-interested behavior.Psychological Science, 21, 311-314.
  12. ^ World Health Organization. “Air pollution.” Accessed in September 2019.
  13. ^ Lelieveld, J., Klingmuller, K., Pozzer, A., Poschl, U., Fnais, M., Daiber, A., and Munzel, T. (2019). “Cardiovascular disease burden fromambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions.European Heart Journal, 40, 1590-1596.
  14. ^ Herrnstadt, E., Heyes, A., Muehlegger, E., and Saberian, S. (2018). “Air pollution as a cause of violent crime.Manuscript in preparation.
  15. ^ Lu, J. G., Quoidbach, J., Gino, F., Chakroff, A., Maddux, W. W., and Galinsky, A. D. (2017). “The dark side of going abroad: How broad foreign experiences increase immoral behavior.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 1-16.
  16. ^ Kouchaki, M., and Desai, S. D. (2015). “Anxious, threatened, and also unethical: how anxiety makes individuals feel threatened and commit unethical acts.Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 360-375.
  17. ^ Gachter, S., and Schulz, J. F. (2016). “Intrinsic honesty and the prevalence of rule violations across societies.Nature, 531(7595), 496-499.
  18. ^ Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S., and Steg, L. (2008). “The spreading of disorder.Science, 322, 1681-1685.
  19. ^ Lu, J. G., Lee, J. J., Gino, F., and Galinsky, A. D. (2018). “Polluted morality: Air pollution predicts criminal activity and unethical behavior.Psychological Science, 29, 340-355.
  20. ^ Tainio, M., de Nazelle, A. J., Gotschi, T., Kahlmeier, S., Rojas-Rueda, D., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J., de Sa, T. H., Kelly, P., and Woodcock, J. (2016). “Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking?Preventive Medicine, 87, 233-236.