We speed. Even if you only go 5 miles over the speed limit, because everyone else does, you’re still breaking the law.

That fact got psychology professor Mark Barnett from Kansas State University thinking. Why are normally good and moral people willing to lie and cheat ‘just a little’? So he talked to hundreds of people about 40 different minor moral and legal violations, like speeding, cheating on a boyfriend. Here’s what he found:

Most people feel it’s okay to lie and cheat if – it doesn’t hurt anyone else. People are much more likely to engage in something illegal, like taking towels from a hotel, because there’s no real identifiable human victim. It’s the difference between parking in a no-parking zone – no victim – and parking in a handicapped space – where there is a victim. You can imagine that somebody needs that spot.

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Another reason we do things that are illegal and immoral: Because everybody else is doing it. That helps us justify our behavior. This one was especially true for speeding.

And this one surprised Dr. Barnett. People are more likely to do something illegal than immoral. Because the minor illegal things most people do carry a low risk of punishment and don’t make us feel guilty. Like that illegal u-turn. You probably think you won’t get caught and you probably don’t feel guilty doing it.

  • People are less likely to do something immoral, like cheat on a boyfriend. Because of the guilt factor.
  • But most people wouldn’t do something immoral and illegal, like steal a friend’s term paper and call it their own.

Just something to think about the next time you’re shoving a load of sugar packets in your purse at a restaurant.

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