There’s a little bit of bad in all of us

There’s a little bit of bad in all of us

In June, storms caused significant damage to a section of bayside boardwalk in Melbourne. Due to debris and unsafe conditions the council took decisive action and blocked off the walkway with signage and fencing.

So why most mornings do I see people going out of their way to circumvent the barricade, and what does this tell us about behaviour?

That barricade ain’t no obstacle

Here’s an image of the barricade blocking entry to the boardwalk.

By no means can you fail to see the fence or understand its intent to stop you from proceeding. However, the yellow arrows show the path people (of all shapes, sizes, ages and genders) have created to circumvent the barricade – up a wall, scale the cliff, round the end of the fence, down the cliff, step on to the seat and then down on to terra firma. In other words, quite a bit of effort which shows that sufficient motivation can see people do hard things.

Just a little bit bad

In his book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, behavioural economist Dan Ariely describes the type of behaviour where we are just a little bit bad – we fudge the truth. Our “fudge factor” is the tendency to transgress to a small degree. It is our willingness to bend the rules to gain advantage, but only so much as we can maintain a positive view of ourselves.

Our fudge factor might see us:

  • Driving just a little bit over the speed limit
  • Taking the occasional pen or notepad from work
  • Not owning up to being undercharged
  • Crossing against the lights

In the case of the boardwalk, people were doing something that contravened the rules but did not contravene the image they held of themselves as (quite probably) law-abiding citizens.

So when do we fudge? Here are two factors that increase its likelihood.

We see other people doing it 

Seeing other people do something ‘bad’ means we are more prone to do likewise. It normalises the transgression. We tend to cross against the lights if someone else has, drive faster if the traffic around us is, and drop rubbish if we think others do.

As a business who wants people to do the right thing it means you have to normalise the desired behaviour and stigmatise what’s undesirable. A message like “our staff are honest and hard-working” may seem trite but serves to normalise expected behaviour. Having anti-shoplifting messages throughout your store on the other hand sends the message that people have and do steal from you.

We trade good and bad

A study by researchers Mazar & Zhong showed that people who had done a good deed (e.g. bought environmentally safe washing powder) were more likely to cheat when given the opportunity. The opposite held true too – when people had done something bad they tended to want to make it up by doing something good.

In this sense it’s like we have moral bank accounts against which we constantly make deposits and withdrawals.

As a business that means you should not pigeon hole customers, staff or suppliers as either virtuous or villainous because, in truth, we are all a bit of both.

Behavioural lessons from the boardwalk barricade

Four lessons the boardwalk barricade teaches us:

  • We are masters of rationalisation and will excuse our behaviour if others are doing it or if we are good the rest of the time
  • We can be quick to judge others but excuse ourselves (the Fundamental Attribution Error) which can damage our relationships with colleagues, friends and family
  • Just because people shouldn’t do something doesn’t mean they won’t
  • If people want to do something badly enough, they will find a way

For more, here’s how to protect your business from dishonesty.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.




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