Why don’t we do the right thing more often? What gets in the way?

There are three major explanations for ethically unintelligent behavior, and they’re easy to remember because they all start — and appropriately so — with f: fear, focus on short-term benefits, and foul mood. Let’s look at each one more closely.

1. Fear. At the root of peer pressure is fear: the fear of not being accepted. Young people are especially susceptible to this type of fear since kids and adolescents value approval so much. It still bothers me that I stole a pocket-sized can of breath spray from a pharmacy when I was ten simply because a friend urged me to do it. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway.

But fear gives rise to a lot of unethical behavior among adults, too. When you know your boss has a drinking problem, you may fear reprisals if you intervene in some way (by contacting your organization’s employee assistance program, for example). Even if your company has a policy that prohibits retaliation, you might decide to do nothing about the problem because you don’t want your boss to be angry with you in the event that he or she finds out it was you who intervened. We all want to be on good terms with our supervisors, but the lengths to which we go to achieve this can be at odds with ethical intelligence.

2. Focus on short-term benefits. As someone who struggles constantly with weight, I know all too well how tempting those vanilla cupcakes with chocolate buttercream frosting from Magnolia Bakery can be. I also know that if I eat one and I’m not willing to work out for an extra hour to burn it off, then I’ll pay a price — but, heck, it looks so good, why not indulge now and worry about the results later? Placing a greater priority on immediate benefits (in this case, intense gustatory pleasure) than on long-term benefits (such as maintaining a healthy weight) Is a problem that can crop up in many contexts — not just when it comes to deciding whether to wolf down a tasty morsel but also when it comes to matters of far greater importance, such as how to do business.

For example, some businesses outsource their customer service positions because overseas jobs cost less, which means profits will be greater. However, companies that engage in this practice can generate so much ill will among their customers, who are frustrated with being unable to communicate effectively with their “customer care associates,” that in the long run these businesses may lose the very people they claim to be serving. Yes, the marketplace is increasingly crowded, and the pressure to be profitable is greater than ever. But businesses that keep customer service jobs at home are both ethically intelligent and more likely to remain profitable far beyond the next several quarters.

3. Foul mood. It’s hard to treat others with kindness when you haven’t had enough sleep, you’ve just gotten some bad news, or you’re having problems with a relationship. When you’re feeling bad, it’s more difficult to restrain the impulse to be nasty or even hurtful. You know that person in your life who knows exactly what it takes to push your buttons and does so at every opportunity? It’s their own emotional issues, rather than anything you’ve said or done, that’s most likely at the heart of this anti-social behavior.

Make no mistake: I’m merely trying to explain, not justify, why it’s sometimes challenging to live according to the five principles of ethical intelligence (Do No Harm, Make Things Better, Respect Others, Be Fair, and Care). But if you’re aware of the things that are likely to trip you up, you can be on guard against them and improve the odds of making ethically intelligent choices. Understanding a problem is the first step toward fixing it and preventing it from recurring.