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Scenario 2: You have been working in a technical job for ABC company for 6 months and are about to pass probation and be hired full time. Your manager has been a little more attentive than usual and calls you into the office. You are told that to be promoted, you will be required to put in 20 hours a week “off the clock.” You decide to contact HR and are told that this is just “standard practice.” You know this is illegal, but you also really need the job. What do you do?

Be sure to apply at least one ethical system in depth, including application of at least 4 specific aspects of that system in your posts.


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Social Justice Research, Vol. 17, No. 2, June 2004 (C© 2004)

Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception
in Unethical Behavior

Ann E. Tenbrunsel1,3 and David M. Messick2

This paper examines the root of unethical dicisions by identifying the psycho-
logical forces that promote self-deception. Self-deception allows one to behave
self-interestedly while, at the same time, falsely believing that one’s moral princi-
ples were upheld. The end result of this internal con game is that the ethical aspects
of the decision “fade” into the background, the moral implications obscured. In
this paper we identify four enablers of self-deception, including language eu-
phemisms, the slippery slope of decision-making, errors in perceptual causation,
and constraints induced by representations of the self. We argue that current so-
lutions to unethical behaviors in organizations, such as ethics training, do not
consider the important role of these enablers and hence will be constrained in
their potential, producing only limited effectiveness. Amendments to these solu-
tions, which do consider the powerful role of self-deception in unethical decisions,
are offered.

KEY WORDS: ethics; decision making; self-deception; ethics training.

“To see the self as deceiving itself has seemed the only way to explain what
might otherwise be incomprehensible: a person’s failure to acknowledge
what is too obvious to miss”

(Bok, 1989, p. 60)

While there has been a rush to explain and remedy the unethical corporate
practices that now seem commonplace, one of the newest entrants—the psycholog-
ical processes behind unethical decision making—appears to be the most promis-
ing. In 1966, Messick and Tenbrunsel argued for the integration of psychology

1Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana.
2Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
3All correspondence should be addressed to Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Mendoza College of Business, Uni-
versity of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556-0399; e-mail: [email protected].


0885-7466/04/0600-0223/0C© 2004 Plenum Publishing Corporation


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224 Tenbrunsel and Messick

and behavioral economics into the field of business ethics. Such integration, they
assert, would allow for the normatively based questions of “ought” to be consid-
ered alongside the equally important questions of “how.” Dienhartet al. (2001)
compiled a series of papers, entitledThe Next Phase of Business Ethics: Integrat-
ing Psychology and Ethics, which illustrate the range of phenomena that define
the intersection of these areas. We argue that the process of self-deception is at the
root of this juncture of disciplines. Self-deception causes the moral implications
of a decision to fade, allowing individuals to behave incomprehensibly and, at the
same time, not realize that they are doing so.

The promise of the psychological perspective is not reflected in the current
solution of choice for unethical behavior, namely “ethics training.” Corporations
and business schools have been urged to deliver such instruction and training with
the hope that executives in turn will make more moral decisions. More than half of
organizations provide training to their employees (Joseph, 2003). Business ethics
programs have grown at a rapid rate in the best business schools in the country and
in the latest ratings of business schools, the category of ethics is explicitly used as
an evaluative dimension.

While the intention is good, we wonder whether it will achieve the desired end
product, namely a reduction in unethical behavior. Could scandals such as Enron,
Worldcom, and Adelphia have been avoided if their executives had received more
ethics training? We argue that the answer to this question is no. Ethics training has
been argued to be short-lived (Richards, 1999) and codes of conduct, usually part
of the educational process, have in some cases produced no discernible difference
in behavior (Badaracco and Webb, 1995). According to a recent survey, more than
half of the MBA graduates did not feel that the ethics training they received in
business schools was very useful in addressing the ethical issues they face in the
workplace (Business Week Online, 2003).

We argue that one of the reasons for such potential ineffectiveness is the
narrow focus of such training. Typical instruction includes an overview of ethical
theory, discussion of ethical principles, and applications of such principles using a
case-based method. Such instruction assumes that by highlighting and emphasizing
the moral components of decisions, executives will be more likely to choose the
moral path. Missing from this paradigm, however, is the failure to acknowledge
the innate psychological tendency for individuals to engage in self-deception.
Individuals do not “see” the moral components of an ethical decision, not so much
because they are morally uneducated, but because psychological processesfade
the “ethics” from an ethical dilemma.

We introduce the term “ethical fading” to define the process by which the
moral colors of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral
implications. If we are correct, educating individuals on moral principles is only
useful when individuals perceive that the decision has ethical coloration, but useless
when ethical fading has occurred or may occur. Our argument echoes Messick and
Bazerman (1996) who argue that the assumption that executive ethics is based


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Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior 225

on explicit tradeoffs between ethics and profits is misplaced; rather, they argue,
unethical behavior is due to the “psychological tendencies that create unethical
behavior.” Efforts to improve ethical decision making, then, may be better directed
toward understanding these psychological tendencies.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a framework in which to enhance this
understanding. We first provide a brief overview of self-deception, which we argue
to be at the root of ethical fading. We then identify and describe four reasons why
such deception is perpetuated, including the role of language euphemisms, the
slippery slope of decision making, errors in perceptual causation, and constraints
induced by representations of the self. We link this discussion to the concept of
decision frames, which we argue act as catalysts for ethical fading. We argue that
self-deception and decision frames are part of the sequence linking environmental
cues to unethical behavior, with environmental cues acting as prompts for self-
deception, which in turn decreases the likelihood that an ethical frame is adopted,
thus increasing unethical behavior. We conclude with implications for increasing
ethical behavior in organizations.


Self-deception is defined as being unaware of the processes that lead us to
form our opinions and judgments (Messick and Bazerman, 1996). Such deception
involves avoidance of the truth, the lies that we tell to, and the secrets we keep
from, ourselves (Bok, 1989). This practice is common, normal, and accepted as
constant and pervasive in individuals’ lives. We are creative narrators of stories
that tend to allow us to do what we want and that justify what we have done. We
believe our stories and thus believe that we are objective about ourselves.

We argue that self-deception is instrumental in the process of ethical fad-
ing. An ethical decision often involves a tradeoff between self-interest and moral
principles. By avoiding or disguising the moral implications of a decision, indi-
viduals can behave in a self-interested manner and still hold the conviction that
they are ethical persons. Ignorance and false beliefs about oneself can create errors
in judgments concerning moral responsibility and in estimates of the amount of
harm that is caused, as well as obscure means to reverse an immoral decision (Bok,
1989). Self-deceit is thus seen as standing in the way of morality. Indeed, it has
been asserted that if individuals could rid themselves of such self-deceit, then they
would be more capable of making moral decisions and leading nobler lives (Bok,

The importance of self-deception in unethical decision making is clear, despite
the fact that it is unclear whether such deception is the result of a conscious act or
an unconscious process. Self-deception is paradoxical in this sense, for to deceive
oneself somehow implies that one must know that something needs to be hidden
or kept secret (Bok, 1989, p. 61). Psychoanalysis has offered the concept of the


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226 Tenbrunsel and Messick

split-selves as one mechanism that may help explain this paradox (Demos, 1960;
Fingarette, 1969; Freud, 1957; Haight, 1980). The question of whether it is a
process of which we are aware or one which exists below the surface, however,
remains a debated point.

What is evident is that we need to acknowledge the pervasiveness of self-
deception and its role in unethical decision making. As Messick and Bazerman
(1996) state, “if we can accept the fact that the human mind has an infinite, creative
capacity to trick itself, we can guard against irrational, unethical decisions.” Under-
standing the mechanisms by which self-deception is exacerbated, the “enablers” if
you will, becomes the necessary next step. In the following discussion, we identify
four such enablers: language euphemisms, the slippery slope of decision making,
biased perceptual causation, and the constrained representation of our self.

Language Euphemisms

Language euphemisms are the “disguised” stories we tell ourselves about our
unethical actions. These stories are an edited version of the “real” story, devoid of all
ethical implications. Through renaming actions we take and relabeling decisions
we make, we turn what may be unacceptable into socially approved behaviors.
Euphemistic language can make harmful conduct respectable and, as such, is an
“injurious” weapon (Bandura, 1999).

There is a rich library of illustrations of this tendency, in business and well
as other professions. We engage in “aggressive” accounting practices, not illegal
ones. There may be some “externalities” associated with a strategy, not harmful to
others or the environment. We have “collateral damage” in military campaigns, not
civilian deaths. Some of these illustrate the tendency to replace morally repugnant
language with more abstract and neutral terms. In other cases the goal is to connote
something more or less benign, depending on what is in our best self-interest. So
in the Middle East, the barrier that is being erected by Israel is referred to as a
“fence” by the Israelis and as a “wall” by the Palestinians. A wall connotes that
those inside are in a sort of “ghetto” which would be repugnant to the Israelis,
and a “fence” connotes neighborliness, which the Palestinians see as completely
misleading. The fact is that it is very easy to find the words to color a story in such
a way that it becomes appealing to the narrator and consistent with the narrator’s

The accounting term “pro forma” falls into this same category. Until recently,
companies used to report earnings on a pro-forma basis, which acted “as if” cer-
tain ordinary expenses did not really exist. The use of this term enabled corporate
executives to make companies look better than they really were while in actual-
ity, these “make your own accounting rules” facilitated deceptive and misleading
presentations (Weil, 2003).


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Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior 227

Messick (1999a) provides a vivid illustration of language euphemisms in
the tobacco industry. To fight the growing body of research that indicated that
tobacco was addictive, the industry fought to redefine the concept of addiction.
While medical definitions of addition include multiple indications—including in-
creased tolerance of a drug, withdrawal issues, brain mechanisms, and intoxicating
qualities—the tobacco industry focused only on the intoxication criteria to
conclude that smoking cigarettes was not addictive. The industry also re-labeled
the debate from health to civil rights using terms such as “accommodation” (a term
used to describe the process by which smokers and nonsmokers could coexist with-
out government intervention); in doing so, they attempted to refocus attention away
from risky health issues and toward civil rights issues, where the tobacco man-
ufacturers stood on firmer ground. Using these and other strategies, the tobacco
industry perfected “the strategy of blowing smoke at the claims” (Messick, 1999a,
p. 82).

Business schools have likewise been blamed for the creation of euphemisms
that help to disguise unethical actions. Business schools have been accused of
using “cold language,” which affects the way business students think (Browning,
2003). Terms such as “transaction costs, profit maximization, and rationalization”
are argued to be devoid of the human and potential ethical dimensions of decisions.
A case in point is the term “right sizing”—the favored terms for layoffs—which
focuses attention toward the economic benefits and away from the human costs of
putting people out of work.

Albert Speer, a member of Hitler’s government and his innermost circle of
advisors, provides another compelling example of the role of language euphemisms
and their connection to self-deception (Speer, 1970). Speer played an integral
part in the design of the munitions factories and was certainly knowledgeable of
the treatment of the prisoner employees. However, by relabeling himself as an
“architect” or “administrator,” he admits that he was able to convince himself that
worrying about political, and in the end, human issues, was not his job.

Social scientists have also uncovered the powerful role of language in the
decision-making process. In a study of cooperation rates in ultimatum versus pris-
oner dilemma games, Larrick and Blount (1997) demonstrated that the differences
in cooperation rates between social dilemmas and ultimatum bargaining games
could be explained by the words used to describe these games. When faced with
choices of “accepting” or “rejecting” offers, individuals were less likely to coop-
erate than when the choice was described as “claiming” part of a shared resource,
even though outcomes were identical. Similarly, Pillutla and Chen (1999) found
that when a social dilemma was described using economic language there was less
cooperation than when the same dilemma (in payoff terms) was described using
noneconomic words.

Language euphemisms themselves are not dangerous. We need metaphors to
help us simplify the complexity of our world. What is dangerous is when these


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228 Tenbrunsel and Messick

metaphors hide the moral or ethical implications of our decisions. Metaphors such
as “pro forma,” “creative accounting,” and “right sizing” can be so commonplace
that we no longer see the questionable behavior that they were designed to disguise.
Perhaps worse, the metaphors can be dangerously transformed from descriptions
to explanations. In doing so, unethical behavior becomes justifiable through a
process of deception, in which we transform morally wrong behavior into socially
acceptable actions. When this occurs, we avoid the complexity inherent in ethical
dilemmas and short-circuit our decision-making processes (Bok, 1989). The ethical
pigments of our action have faded.

The Slippery Slope of Decision Making

The so-called “slippery slope” of decision making, the second enabler of self-
deception, consists of at least two separate psychological mechanisms. The first
of these is a psychological numbing that comes from repetition. This process is
aptly described by Bok (1989, p. 69) in her influential book on concealment:

A related form of rejecting knowledge is what is known as “psychic numbing.” It comes
much closer to what is often called self-deception, yet it can be a reflex response to over-
whelming pain or fear. Recall an intensely painful experience, and notice that it is impossible
to recapture the sheer physical sense of that pain. In the same way, the initial impact of
suffering may wear off with repeated exposure, leaving us incapable of responding to what
at first aroused sharp reactions.

In this sense, repeated exposures to ethical dilemmas may produce a form of
ethical numbing in which self-reproof is diminished through repeated exposures
(Bandura, 1999). When this occurs, we may be less likely to see the “ethical” in the
dilemma, and hence engage in more unreflective and potentially more unethical

The second component of the slippery slope problem is what we call the
“induction” mechanism. Induction in mathematics is as follows. If a statement is
true for N = 1, and if the statement forN + 1 is true assuming the truth ofN, then
the statement is true for allN. The way this works in organizations is similar. If
what we were doing in the past is OK and our current practice is almost identical,
then it too must be OK. This mechanism uses the past practices of an organization
as a benchmark for evaluating new practices. If the past practices were ethical and
acceptable, then practices that are similar and not too different are also acceptable.
If each step away from ethical and acceptable practices is sufficiently small, small
enough not to appear qualitatively different, then a series of these small steps can
lead to a journey of unethical and illegal activities. This process of induction is
very much like the process of routinization described by Kelman and Hamilton
(1989). Routinization means that when a practice has become routine, it is ordinary,
mundane, and acceptable. Any ethical coloration is lost.

An excellent illustration of this process is offered by Maremont (1996) with
the criminal prosecution of Bernard Bradstreet, Co-CEO of Kurzweil Applied


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Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior 229

Intelligence, Inc., a manufacturer of high-tech voice recognition computers. Brad-
street was described by friends as a “straight arrow,” a man of impeccable moral
stature. But in an effort to make the kind of financial record for Kurzweil that
would allow the company to go public, Bradstreet, according to sources sited by
Maremont, allowed sales reps to post sales that were not actually signed a few
days in advance to meet financial targets. The goods would be shipped to a ware-
house while the final terms of the deal were worked out. These few innocuous
days stretched into weeks and as this happened, the certainty that the sale would
be made also dropped. Eventually, some salesmen were forging customers’ sig-
natures on contracts (believing that the sales would eventually happen). When
auditors came to examine the books and wrote to the alleged customers, bogus
responses “confirming” the sales were also forged. Thus a completely false im-
pression of Kurzweil’s financial health was created through deception and fraud.
At trial, Mr Bradstreet defended his actions as appropriate.

The story of Mr. Bradstreet and Kurzweil is but one of many that could be
told to illustrate the dangerous consequences of the slippery slope. It follows the
old adage that “one lie perpetuates many more.” Part of this is due to our inability
to see the incremental steps we take down the road of unethical behavior, due to
the self-deception that occurs along the way.

Errors in Perceptual Causation

What our language and baby steps cannot filter out, our errors in why things
occur can. Causation is complex and humans are self-interested and fallible. The
end result: misconstrued judgments about moral responsibility.

There are three reasons why individual perceptions of causes can go awry—a
focus on individuals rather than systems, self-interested motives in the assignment
of blame, and a blurred moral responsibility involving acts of omission (Mes-
sick and Bazerman, 1996). First, individuals tend to focus on a person rather than
a system in assessing and remedying problematic situations. Individual fallibil-
ities are often more apparent than the complex errors that mark technology and
systems. Because of our assumption that systems are “error proof,” we overlook
environmental causes of unethical behavior, in turn reducing the probability that
the system will be improved. Tenbrunsel and Messick (1999) found for exam-
ple, that the presence of a monitoring system designed to decrease undesirable
behavior actually produced an increase. The tendency to look at human causes
might lead one to conclude that employees are to be trusted even less, further
focusing attention on improving the monitoring system. Their results, however,
suggest that it may be the system that is the real culprit. Our proclivity to fo-
cus only on the person may thus lead us to overlook other, more likely causes,
which reduces the likelihood that the frequency of unethical behavior will be


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230 Tenbrunsel and Messick

Causal explanations are also in danger of inaccuracy because of the self-
interested motives that may influence assignment of blame. In an investigation of
perceived causation of events when two factors—the “target” and the “contributing
factor”—conjoin to produce an event, McGill and Tenbrunsel (2000) found that
causal ratings of the target factor were influenced in part by the mutability of the
contributing factor, defined as the degree to which the contributing factor could be
imagined to be different. More specifically, they found that when the contributing
factor was perceived to be immutable, causal attention was directed to the target
factor. Using the above example concerning system versus human error, if systems
are seen as immutable in comparison to humans, then humans will be focused on
as targets of blame. The end result is an overemphasis on certain factors (the fac-
tors perceived to be more “mutable”) and an underemphasis on others (the factors
perceived to be “immutable”). Medical mistakes, for example, are argued to result
less from human error, as is commonly believed, and more from unrealistic system
expectations that human operators are flawless (Cowley et al. 1995). McGill and
Tenbrunsel (2000) argue that these findings have more general implications for the
assignment of blame. Since causal explanations are influenced by mutability, the
assignment of blame is thus dependent on which factors are perceived to be mutable
or immutable. Such judgments of mutability may reflect not only objective assess-
ments of which factors can change but may also be influenced by the motivation of
the perceiver. If the perceiver has a self-interested motive to deflect blame, the per-
ceived mutability of alternative factors may increase. In other words, self-interest
may mean that I see other factors as more variable than they really are, and hence
erroneously deflect blame from myself that should rightfully be assigned to me.

Acts of omission are a third reason as to why perceptions of causes are in
error. Whereas lies of commission are direct misstatements of the truth, lies of
omission are acts of deception that occur because someone withholds information
that deceives the target. A failure to take an action, i.e., disclose the truth, makes
it more difficult to ascertain responsibility, not only for others but also for oneself.
Consider the situation in which you are selling a car. Is it your responsibility to
inform the buyer that the car has had several unexplained malfunctions or is it
the buyer’s responsibility to ask? Phrases or euphemisms such as “buyer beware”
reveal the answer: moral responsibility shifts from the agent to the target under
situations characterized by acts of omissions. Ritov and Baron’s (1990) work
provides empirical support for this intuitive motion, demonstrating that acts of
omission are viewed as more acceptable than acts of commission. Acts of omission,
then, because they blur the assignment of responsibility, can create self-biased
perceptions of causes, shifting blame from self to others. In such circumstances,
it is highly likely that individuals’ propensity to engage in unethical behavior
increases, because shifting responsibility to others allows one to divorce oneself
from the moral implications of their actions.

Errors in perceptual causation allow us to distance ourselves from the ethical
issues at hand. We erroneously believe that we cannot fix the problem, because


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Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior 231

it is a people and not a system issue. We also falsely believe that it is someone
else’s problem, either because they are to blame or because the responsibility is
someone else’s, not ours. While different from hiding the ethical implications of
our own actions, this form of self-deception removes the ethical decision from our
backyard, thus watering down the ethical demands of the situation.

The Constrained Representation of Our Self

The final point that we want to make about enablers of self-deception is the
obvious but often overlooked fact that we do not get to choose how we see the world.
We experience the world through our own sensory organs, not those of others. We
see others and they see us, which places us in a different space vis-`a-vis our social
surroundings than other people. This is a logical, not an empirical, fact. Because
what we experience will always be different from what is experienced by others,
we know both more and less than they do. Even when we try to put ourselves
into the place of others, the best we can do is to try to imagine what the other
would experiencefrom our own perspective.So from this perspective, it is an act
of self-deception to believe that one knows something about an “objective” truth.

John Barth (1958, pp. 86–87) reflects this fact in his novel,The End of the
Road,when his character, a quack Doctor, states the following: “In life there are
no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography,
and historiography, are a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life
story.Hamletcould be told from Polonius’s point of view and called theTragedy
of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Denmark.He did not think he was a minor
character in anything, I daresay. Or suppose you’re an usher in a wedding. From
the groom’s point of view he’s the major character; the others play supporting
parts, even the bride. From your point of view, though, the wedding is a minor
episode in thevery interesting history of your life and the bride and groom both
are minor figures. What you’ve done is chose toplay the partof a minor character:
it can be pleasant for you topretend to beless important than you know you are,
as Odysseus does when he disguises as a swineherd.” Our views of the world are
thus biased, constrained by who we are. Any thoughts that we have an objective
comprehension are a form of self-deception. The inability to have a truly objective
perception of the world means that we cannot accurately evaluate the effect our
behavior has on others, the ability of which is central to many prominent ethical


What is the fallout of self-deception? How is it linked to unethical behavior?
We argue that self-deception leads to coding, or framing, of decisions that either


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232 Tenbrunsel and Messick

eliminate negative ethical characterizations or distort them into positive ones. Self-
deception helps to disguise violations of our ethical principles. If we do not see
that our actions are unethical, then we can behave in a self-interested but ultimately
unethical manner. In other words, we don’t code the decision as an ethical one;
rather, we see it as ethically colorless. The decision is categorized in other terms,
perhaps as a business, economic, personal, or legal decision. Such categorization
in turn allows behavior that others would judge as unethical.

Recent theorizing suggests that individuals’ construal of the situation does
influence unethical behavior. Extending March’s (1995) ideas, Messick (1999b)
focused on the stages of decision making. One of these stages involves judgments
of appropriateness. In this stage, individuals decide what type of situation it is
with which they are faced. For example, individuals may construe the situation
to be a competitive one in which self-interest should dominate; alternatively, they
may perceive the situation to be cooperative, one in which joint gain and mutual
satisfaction are the primary objectives. More pertinent to the discussion at hand,
individuals may perceive that the situation is an ethical dilemma, with the objective
to consider the ethical principles at stake, or that the situation is a business problem,
one in which organizational goals are of the utmost importance. Judgments of
appropriateness are important because they influence behavior. If one believes
that what is called for in a situation is a “temporary” posting of a sale before the
actual sale is made, then that is the “right” thing to do. One’s intent is positive and

Analysis of the impact of surveillance systems on cooperative behavior pro-
vides support for this idea. In an investigation of cooperative behavior in social
dilemmas, Tenbrunsel and Messick (1999) examined the effects of a surveillance
system that monitored whether individuals cooperated or defected. They proposed
that cooperative behavior would actually decrease when a weak surveillance sys-
tem was put into place as compared to the identical situation in which no surveil-
lance system was present. Finding support for this hypothesis, they investigated
the impact that decision frames would play in explaining this pattern of results.
Their results are consistent with the ideas advanced by March (1995) and Messick
(1999b), namely that the presence of a surveillance system significantly changed
the construal of the decision situation. When there was no surveillance system in
place, the majority of individuals perceived that the situation was best character-
ized as an ethical decision but when a surveillance system was present, the majority
of individuals perceived that the situation could be best described as a business de-
cision. On the basis of these results, a model was introduced to describe the impact
of a surveillance system on behavior. The model offered two effects: a signaling
effect and a processing effect. External cues, such as a surveillance system, serve
as a signal that impacts the construal of the situation (i.e., an ethical frame versus
a business frame). The cognitive processing that follows is then unique to each
frame. In an ethical frame, for example, the processing is fairly automatic, with
individuals primed to do the “right thing.” The processing in a business frame is


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Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior 233

argued to be more complex, depending, for example, on assessments of the chances
of being detected and the strength of the sanction. Their results demonstrated the
connection between decision frame and behavior, with cooperation significantly
higher when an ethical frame had been adopted.

There is a close correlation between self-deception and the notion of deci-
sion frames described above. More specifically, we believe that self-deception is
one of the underlying mechanisms that helps explains the relationship between
environmental cues (such as a surveillance system) and the construal of the situ-
ation. Self-deception acts as an ethical bleach, removing the ethical colors from
the decision. Whether it is through processes that re-label the behavior in terms
that are devoid of ethical consideration, incremental steps which hide ethical im-
plications of our decisions, biases in perceived causation that erroneously reduce
moral responsibility, or constraints that are induced by our mental representations
of our self, such deception influences the type of decision with which we believe
we are faced. The more self-deception there is, the less salient are the ethical di-
mensions of the situation. The less salient the ethical dimensions, the less likely
it is that an ethical decision frame will be adopted and hence the more likely it is
that individuals will behave unethically.


We have proposed that self-deception is at the core of ethical fading and,
through influencing the decision frame that is adopted, is a dominant perpetrator
in unethical behavior. Efforts designed to reduce unethical behavior are therefore
best directed on the sequence leading up the unethical action. Our discussion can
be reconstrued in fairly simplistic terms that help identify the relevant stages: en-
vironmental prompts (or cues) trigger self-deception mechanisms which influence
the decision frame that is adopted which in turn impacts behavior. In ethical de-
cisions, there are situational cues that may initially suggest an ethical dilemma.
The dominant influence of self-interest triggers self-deception, which decreases
the likelihood that an ethical frame will be adopted, leading to unethical behavior.

The above sequence identifies several trigger points that contribute to un-
ethical behavior: environmental or contextual cues, self-deception, and decision
frames. To date, ethics training has focused on normative education, which could
reasonably be argued to promote an ethical frame. Such training, however, comes
late in the game and fails to recognize the other variables in the sequence of
events; consequently, it may only be partially effective. Self-deception processes,
in competition with such training, may override the ethics frame induced by ethics
education and promote an economic or business frame. This is not to suggest that
such training is useless but rather to highlight that it represents only a piece of the
puzzle. To encourage ethical behavior in organizations, the other pieces must also
be addressed.


Social Justice Research [sjr] pp1205-sore-486742 April 29, 2004 23:4 Style file version Nov 28th, 2002

234 Tenbrunsel and Messick

Starting at the left side of the equation, one set of variables that leads to uneth-
ical behavior are the environmental or contextual cues that exist in an organization.
Organizations should thus identify the structural, institutional, and systematic
factors that promote unethical behavior. Work by Tenbrunselet al. (2003) may
be useful in this regard. Introducing the term “ethical infrastructure,” they argue
that organizations can effectively decrease unethical behavior only by making
sure that all organizational elements—including the formal and informal systems
of communication, surveillance, and sanctioning mechanisms, and the organiza-
tional climates pertaining to ethics, justice, and respect—are in line with each
other. Traditional ethical fixes focus on the more visible formal systems (codes of
conduct, ethics departments, ombudsmen), which while important, are relatively
weak in comparison to the more hidden, and more difficult to correct, informal
systems and accompanying organizational climates. Implementing weak systems
or focusing on only a few elements, for example the surveillance function, while
ignoring other more embedded elements sends a mixed signal to employees. As
uncertainty is linked to opportunistic actions (Fandt and Ferris, 1990) and unethi-
cal behavior (Tenbrunsel, 1995), organizations can reduce uncertainty by sending
strong, consistent messages about ethical principles at all levels of the organiza-
tion’s ethical infrastructure.

The next variable in the equation is the process of self-deception. Admittedly,
self-deception is hard to correct. Recognizing self-deception is difficult (Bok,
1989) and correcting the ingrained mechanisms that accompany it, even more so.
The first step is to recognize its pervasive and universal presence, for “to deny this
reality is to practice self-deception” (Messick and Bazerman, 1996, p. 22). We must
condition ourselves to be aware of the enablers of self-deception; furthermore, we
must be more critical of our judgments and our motives driving both our actions
and our judgments of others’ behaviors (Messick and Bazerman, 1996). Given
the connection between justification and unethical behavior (Bok, 1978; Lewicki
and Litterer, 1985; Tenbrunsel, 1995), we must also question the justifications
that we concoct to rationalize our actions. By confronting the tendency toward
self-deception head on, we will be more likely to reduce its prevalence than if
we ignore it and act as if it did not exist. To do otherwise only reinforces this
potentially destructive force.

Focusing on decision frames represents another avenue for increasing ethical
behavior in organizations. Certainly, educating individuals on ethical principles
may increase the likelihood that individuals see the decision as one that contains
ethical dimensions. It is also important to gain a deeper understanding of the cues
that prompt the adoption of one frame over another. Such cues can be quite subtle
(Messick, 1999b), consisting of linguistic (Larrick and Blount, 1997; Messick,
1999b) or personal variables. Perhaps the only way to truly understand their sub-
tlety is to directly investigate decision frames both within as well as between
organizations. Different organizations and different departments within an organi-


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Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior 235

zation may vary in their perception of the same decision, with some organizations
or departments more likely to view the decision as an ethical one than others.
Such an observation would be quite useful as it would point to the elements of the
ethical infrastructure that induce business and economic frames, hence identifying
promising sources of change.


“We struggle along with such thick layers of bias and rationalization, com-
partmentalization and denial, that our choices suffer immeasurably” (Bok, 1989,
p. 71). The layers of self-deception are thick and the processes are ingrained. To
accept this fact, but do nothing about it, will leave us color blind in our vision of
the ethical landscape. Muting the forces behind ethical fading will take much more
time than some of the solutions that have been previously offered but the effort will
be well spent, producing long-lasting and more permanent results. As with most
embedded problems, the first step—recognizing and accepting the problem—is
often the most difficult. The next step is to more clearly understand the processes
that cause ethical fading. We hope this paper provides a roadmap for the ensuing


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