While the vast majority of us would never commit a felony, almost the same number of us blithely break one kind of law nearly every day: We speed.
Even if you only go four or five miles over the posted speed limit--because everyone else does--you're still breaking the law. That got Mark Barnett, a Kansas State University professor of psychology, thinking. Why are perfectly good and moral people willing to lie and cheat--just a little?
Barnett queried 178 undergraduates on 40 different "minor moral and legal violations." Some of the violations were illegal infractions, while others were immoral but not illegal. They included speeding, cheating on an exam, and cheating on a golf game. Some of the violations had a human victim; others did not.
It's okay to lie and cheat if...
...It doesn't hurt anyone else.
The students were more likely to engage in violations that didn't hurt a human victim, such as taking towels from a hotel, rather than ones where there was an identifiable human victim. "You could park in a no-parking zone, and there's no clear human victim for that." Barnett said, "But you could also park in a handicapped zone, and you could imagine that being harmful to someone who needs that space and has a disability."
...Everyone else is doing it.
The widespread belief that many other people are doing it, helps us to justify illegal or immoral behavior. This was especially true for speeding one to four miles over the limit. "The violations they thought were not that serious were the ones they said they were more likely to engage in."
...There's a thrill in taking the risk.
For people who are high risk-takers, the fun is in the thrill and excitement of the violation. They tend to not be as concerned about getting caught or the danger involved with the behavior as someone who is not a risk-taker.
...It's illegal rather than immoral.
Although this finding surprised Barnett, he realized that the illegal activities people were willing to do were typically ones that carried a low risk of punishment, such as speeding. "Driving a little over the speed limit is illegal, but we inferred from the participants' answers that they didn't think it was likely that a police officer was going to stop them or that anybody was going to get punished for that behavior," Barnett said.