When Bad Decisions Happen to Good People – Part 1

Recently there has been considerable attention on the inability of some executives to behave in an ethical manner. In certain cases, these individuals were seen to be “good people” who made very poor decisions. How can this happen?

Our relative inability to deal with the overall increasing pace of life may shed some light on this question. One classic experiment provides a compelling example of how the most well-intentioned individual can react inappropriately to an ethical situation.

The “Good Samaritan” experiment

In this famous study by Darley and Batson in 1973, volunteers completed a series of questionnaires that measured various aspects of their personality and religiosity, and they also gave a three-to-five minute impromptu talk. Some of the participants were also told of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and that they could incorporate this story into their talk if they wished.

The parable, as found in the Bible, tells the story of a man who was robbed, stripped, beaten and left for dead. This man was helped, not by the two high-ranking religious figures who came upon him and consciously avoided him, but by a Samaritan who was seen as lower-class and morally inferior at the time. One of the lessons from this parable is that individuals who are perceived as morally inferior are capable of compassionate and merciful acts, while those perceived to be morally superior are equally capable of callous and unsympathetic behaviour.

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