Note: this is an older post from a few years ago. But I think it’s worth re-sharing. 

Last night, in my boot camp class, I got accused of cheating. I was meant to be jogging on the spot with my knees up. It’s not that I didn’t want to, exactly. My knees just kind of forgot to do what they were meant to be doing. Also, I was tired. Obviously, I knew that I wasn’t doing the exercise. But that was really just a thought; and instead, I chose to focus on other thoughts: thoughts about dinner and sitting down and how nice a neck massage would be right about now.

And in the manner of the Universe, that was not the first time that cheating came up yesterday. It also featured in a podcast I was listening to: “Why People Do Bad Things“.

So now I’m dedicating a post to it.

What We Think Happens When People Theft Stuff

You hear about a man that stole millions of dollars from the company that he worked for. All his colleagues sound like repeat versions of: “We just can’t believe it – he seemed so nice and well balanced! It just goes to show that you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.”

Other common reactions:

  • That guy is so twisted. 
  • His colleagues are so dumb – how can you miss that?
  • Evil people are so sneaky by deceiving you with their nice smiles and good hair.
  • Now he’ll get what’s coming to him, the bastard.
  • I would never do that.

Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. You absolutely could do that.

What Actually Happens (At Least, Most Of The Time)

In my day job, I spend a lot of time talking to people about their companies. Specifically, the areas where I see risks that they do not. And often, I get told: “Oh no, I’m not concerned about that. The lady in charge has been with us for years. I’d trust her with anything.”

Which is a bit annoying, because it makes me come across as paranoid. But then I say this (it’s almost on pre-record):

  • You do realise that employee fraud is not generally committed by evil people, right?
  • Very few people set out to steal money. That’s just not how it works.
  • Example: you’re in charge of a cash box. It’s the end of Thursday, and tomorrow is Friday. Payday Friday. You’re literally hours away from being paid. But you’re short $20 for fuel to get home. And seeing as there’s no one else at the office, you have no one to borrow money from. So you say to yourself: “Well, it’s only $20. And I’m literally going to put it straight back into the box first thing tomorrow. It’s not like anyone will use it between now and then. I know it’s not what I should be doing – but it’s not like I’m stealing. I just need to get home! You know what – I’ll take $10. I’m sure I have a $5 in the car already, and that’ll be enough. Besides, the boss will never say no if I had asked. What a pity he’s not here. Ah well – I’m sure it’ll be fine. It’s only a few hours.”
  • That’s not outright theft. There is a clear intention to return the money. It’s a moral grey area.
  • But over time, that $10 becomes $100. The Thursday before pay-day becomes the week before pay-day. And things escalate and snowball down slippery slopes.
  • Then you get caught and get accused of being evil. But actually, you’re just stupidly blind about what you’re doing. Because borrowing without asking is stealing.

I’m not saying that there aren’t people that set out to deliberately steal money. Of course there are – but it seems that percentage is quite small.

What Might Be Even More Surprising…

Is the number of people that suddenly find themselves complicit. People who see their work colleague taking extra markers from the stationery cupboard for their kids, and say “How is little Jimmy?” rather than “Stop thief!”.

In fact, the data seems to suggest that we often become counter-parties to fraud because we’re trying to be nice peopleAnd because we empathise. Which, in many ways, is a cognitive failure.

Another example: an old lady goes for an eye test for her driver’s licence. The eye tester sees that she’s actually failing. But because it’s an old lady, and she has no one to help her get to the shops, the eye tester passes her on the condition that she goes and gets new glasses.

The eye tester just wants to be nice. In front of him, he has an old lady that needs his help. Sitting somewhere in the ether are the potential consequences of letting her keep her licence: the dead child she knocked over, the accident she caused by going through a red light… But because those consequences are remote and abstract when compared to the imploring (bad) eyes in front of him, the “nice” course of action seems to involve lying about her eye test result.

The point is: it’s easier to be unethical than we think. And generally speaking, it has nothing to do with whether you’re inherently good or evil.

Just a thought.

Rolling Alpha posts about finance, economics, and sometimes stuff that is only quite loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, or like my page on Facebook at Or both.