眼前就有现成的例子。英国汇丰银行（HSBC）的高管上周二在参议院作证，该行被指控在2007年协助墨西哥毒枭和中东恐怖分子，为非法活动提供资金。同一天，美联储（Federal Reserve）和商品期货交易委员会（Commodity Futures Trading Commission）也在参议院作证，认为多家大型全球性银行可能在2005到2010年间操纵了名为伦敦银行同业拆借利率（Libor）的市场利率，目的是为了粉饰财务状况。巴克莱（Barclays）作为首家被调查的银行，已在上月与监管机构达成和解，缴纳罚款4.5亿美元。花旗集团（Citigroup）高管布莱恩•斯托克则在曼哈顿的联邦法庭被控在知晓该行对赌计划的同时，仍然向客户出售债务抵押债券（collateralized debt obligations）。而在上周摩根大通（J.P. Morgan）告知监管者，公司在对58亿美元交易损失的调查中发现，交易员可能曾经试图掩盖自己的失误。
首先，可以说多数人在做出失德的选择时仍然认为自己是好人。密歇根大学（University of Michigan）罗斯商学院（Ross School of Business）的管理学教授戴维•梅耶尔说：“我们以某种方式行事时，往往通过避免自我制裁，借此设法逃避负罪感。”
老板们就像大多数人一样，通常只看重和他们最亲近的人。这样一来，他们就很难想象失德的选择将会造成的深远影响。在他们的脑海中，“自己的行为几乎是无私的，因为他们是在保护周围人的工作、乃至公司的生存。”在加州大学伯克利分校（University of California, Berkeley）研究领导与沟通的教授巴里•斯托如是说。
一旦我们游走在道德的边缘，我们就会开始自我欺骗，回避这个事实。心理学家所谓的“基本归因错误”（fundamental attribution error.）就是自我欺骗的途径之一。根据这个概念，我们倾向于认为自己的错误决定是对艰难处境的不得已反应，而他人类似的错误，我们却归因于缺德。比如，某位女士正在高速公路上行驶，工作耽误了她去看儿子的棒球比赛，她明白必须马上出高速，否则就会错过上半场比赛。于是她连换三条车道抢到出口。这位女士把她的决定放到自己的生活里去看，觉得很合理：她自认为是个好人，只是因为做个好母亲的欲望在那一刻超过了做个好司机的要求。而高速上其他的人一定都认为她是个不要命的大混蛋。
You can hardly read the news lately without learning how someone at a big bank seemingly flouted both common sense and morality in the effort to make a buck.
A quick sample: Executives from British bank HSBC testified before the Senate this Tuesday over allegations that in 2007, the bank enabled Mexican drug cartel leaders and terrorists in the Middle East to fund illegal activities. Also on Tuesday, the Federal Reserve and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission testified before Congress about how big global banks potentially manipulated a market rate called Libor between 2005 and 2010 to make their financial situations appear better than they were. Barclays (BCS) was the first target in the investigation, having settled with regulators to the tune of $450 million last month. Citigroup (C) executive Brian Stoker is facing allegations in federal court in Manhattan that he sold collateralized debt obligations to clients despite knowing that Citi was planning to bet against those same assets. Last week, J.P. Morgan (JPM) told regulators that an internal investigation into a $5.8 billion trading loss turned up that the traders might have tried to cover up their mistakes.
Unfortunately, the list goes on. The press is bad. Given the fallout of fines and ugly coverage, why would so many of these people try to game the system? To understand the big-picture motives, you need to get inside the mind of a cheater.
Rationalizing poor choices
First, it's safe to say that most people who make unethical choices think of themselves as good people, says David Mayer, a management professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "But we humans have found ways to not feel so bad about it when we behave a certain way -- we basically disconnect these self sanctions."
People will perform all kinds of mental backflips to rationalize their choices, especially when it comes to business. "We're pretty good at segmenting our lives into different areas," says Mayer. "If you were to go to church or temple, that's a moral domain. People tend to not think about business as a moral domain."
In a big business, there's often considerable distance between the people who are making questionable choices and the people those choices hurt. HSBC, for example, allegedly ignored signs that people involved in drug cartels were using its system. "It's not like they were watching someone being shot by a drug cartel," says Mayer. "It's totally depersonalized, you're just looking at numbers," Mayer says.
Leaders, like most people, generally prioritize the people who are closest to them. That can make it difficult to think about the wider reach of unethical choices. In their minds, "They're almost performing altruistic behavior, because they're protecting the jobs around them, and perhaps the survivability of the corporation," says Barry Staw, a professor of leadership and communication at the University of California, Berkeley.
But these kinds of rationalized decisions can spin out of control. And they tend to do so more dramatically in a dog-eat-dog sector such as the financial industry, says Staw. He and his team have examined the scenarios when people tend to make the worst choices. "The more competitive a particular industry is, and the more lean it is, the more people are willing to manage at the edge."
'You are unethical, I'm just caught in a vise'
Then, if we act on the edge of our own morality, we will trick our brains into thinking we are not. One way we do this is with something psychologists call "fundamental attribution error." According to this concept, we tend to think of our own poor choices as responses to challenging situations, but when others act similarly, we are more inclined to think that those people are unethical. For example, say a woman is driving down the freeway; she's late to her son's baseball game after being held up at work, and she realizes that she needs to exit soon or she'll miss half the game. She cuts across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit. The woman views the choice in the context of her life -- she thinks of herself as a good person, her desire to be a good mom perhaps outweighing her interest in being a good driver at that moment. Everyone else on the freeway thinks she is huge jerk.