Ethical Traps: The Irresistible Urge to Cheat

Not a month goes by without some highly publicized ethical scandal. Be it tax evasion, executive pay excesses, sexual dalliances and outright fraud, many individuals are simply unable to resist temptation.

Does this make the perpetrators corrupt sociopaths?

Sometimes, but usually not. They’re often leaders and pillars of the community, and their actions leave us shaking our heads and wondering what were they thinking.

The sad truth? Cheating isn’t limited to those in positions of power. While power is certainly fraught with opportunities and temptations, each of us faces daily choices that involve doing the right—or wrong—thing. Only when a CEO, politician, celebrity or sports legend gets caught does the problem rise to front-page news. Just ask Tiger Woods.

But the same ethical traps lie in your path. Even the little guys transgress. Often, people feel an urge to cheat—a strange pull to try to get away with something. Sometimes it’s small; other times it’s scandalous. Sometimes it matters; other times it goes unnoticed.


Psychology and other social sciences offer a huge body of experimental studies that demonstrate the allure of cheating. In The Ethical Executive (Stanford University Press, 2008), Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey describe 45 ethical traps inherent in any organizational environment.

Many of these traps are psychological in nature, creating “webs of deception” that distort our perception of right and wrong. Such rationalizations lead us to believe our unethical behavior is normal and appropriate, and they have contributed to large-scale corporate disasters like the Enron and WorldCom affairs.


Fish are caught in wire cages with funnel-shaped entrances, which are designed to direct the fish to swim inside.

In the same way, individuals and organizations move in a certain direction—one that may trap them if they fail to reverse an ill-fated course.

At any given moment, we have impulses that motivate us to act. They are reactions to internal or external stimuli, which may be powerful enough to trigger automatic behavior. At this point, we may rationally ignore other (and better) options.

Other times, we’re aware of several distinct choices, but the stimulus’ effect overrides these potential actions. We may desire a specific outcome so strongly that it propels us to move in an unsound direction. Anxiety and stress may also compel us to make choices that alleviate our short-term distress, yet lead to irrevocable long-term consequences.


Some experts believe we’re motivated by four basic human drives that have evolved from our primitive ancestors:

  1. The drive to acquire and improve our status in the tribe
  2. The drive to bond with others
  3. The drive to learn and acquire knowledge
  4. The drive to defend and protect

These drives are especially evident in American and other modern cultures. We work hard to provide for our families, far beyond our survival needs for food, clothing and shelter. Many of us are highly motivated to land the best job, home and/or salary possible. It’s human nature to want to acquire things that make our families comfortable and happy. Many of us are driven to be the smartest or most  prestigious person in the room.

Much of our energy goes toward protecting what we have and defending our territories, families, positions, rights and freedoms—a strong drive that explains why nations go to war.

Organizations are like theaters, where actors play out their desires to acquire, bond, learn and defend. There’s no better stage to demonstrate our tribal drives, and nowhere are there more daily opportunities to choose between right and wrong.


As children, we were primed to obey our parents. Our very survival depended on it. Some families demanded strict obedience; others were lenient about opposition and rebellion; still others encouraged creativity and individual spirit.

But all families required obedience to authority. This conditioning continued in school. Consequently, as adults, when our boss orders us to do something, we quickly obey—often, without thinking.

If an authority figure orders us to do something unethical, our sense of obedience may be so powerful that we follow orders without acknowledging that we’re going against our ethical principles.


Obedience to authority is a “primary” trap, which means a strong external stimulus impels us to move in a certain direction, without regard for our ethical principles.

In business, people don’t abandon their ethics simply because they want to maximize profits. Rather, their drive to acquire and improve their status lures them into a social-psychological trap.

This often happens in smallsteps—yet another trap. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out quickly. But if you place it in the pot and slowly increase the heat, it will remain there and be cooked.

Small steps and choices create minor ethical transgressions that do little harm, but they set the direction that eventually leads to major, irreversible violations.


Hoyk and Hersey describe three types of social-psychological traps that occur in the workplace: primary, defensive and personality. They include:

  1. Obedience to authority
  2. Small steps
  3. Indirect responsibility
  4. Faceless victims
  5. Lost in the group
  6. Competition
  7. Self-interest
  8. Tyranny of goals
  9. Money
  10. Conformity
  11. Power
  12. Obligation
  13. Time pressures

Carefully review and understand these traps so you can prepare for—and avoid—them. Doing so will help ensure your choices are sound and your moral compass remains intact.