Self-Serving Justifications


Unethical behavior by “ordinary” people poses significant societal and personal challenges. We present a novel framework centered on the role of self-serving justification to build upon and advance the rapidly expanding research on intentional unethical behavior of people who value their morality highly. We propose that self-serving justifications emerging before and after people engage in intentional ethical violations mitigate the threat to the moral self, enabling them to do wrong while feeling moral. Pre-violation justifications lessen the anticipated threat to the moral self by redefining questionable behaviors as excusable. Post-violation justifications alleviate the experienced threat to the moral self through compensations that balance or lessen violations. We highlight the psychological mechanisms that prompt people to do wrong and feel moral, and suggest future research directions regarding the temporal dimension of self-serving justifications of ethical misconduct.

Current Directions in Psychological Science