Culture & Society

Why We Absolve Successful People — and Companies — of Bad Behavior

Our inclination to rationalize low acts by high-status people has deep psychological roots.

June 06, 2016



Workers prepare outgoing shipments at an Amazon Fulfillment Center, ahead of the Christmas rush, in Tracy, California. | Reuters/Noah Berger has long been one of America’s most-admired companies, and Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO, often lands high on lists of the most admired CEOs. At the same time, several investigations in recent years revealed that Amazon fosters a harsh, high-pressure culture among its white-collar staffers and abides horrendous working conditions in its enormous warehouses, where lower-wage workers suffer psychological stress from productivity pressures and the physical indignities of inadequate ventilation and air conditioning.

For all the lofty values we profess to hold, there is precious little evidence that real choices and behavior, or even hierarchies of status and awards, reflect those elevated aspirations. Instead, numerous behaviors suggest that it doesn’t matter what an individual or a company does — to human beings or the environment — as long as they are sufficiently rich and successful. Money, indeed, trumps all.

Several theories help explain this phenomenon of rationalizing immoral behavior. Decades-old research by Robert B. Cialdini suggests that to bolster our own status and esteem, we seek to bask in reflected glory. Although Cialdini’s original study focused on college football fans who wore apparel displaying a prestigious team’s insignia, certainly another way to feel a psychological association with success is to accord status to a triumphant social actor, thereby cementing one’s own position among a circle of fellow supporters.

People are also motivated by their belief that the world is a just and fair place. This just-world phenomenon, first researched by Melvin J. Lerner in the 1960s, derives in part from our desire for a sense of control. If everyday life has rules that are consistently and fairly applied, the thinking goes, then people merely need to follow those rules to achieve predictable outcomes. In the face of evidence that a person or corporation has achieved success through capricious or evil means, we reconstrue the information about events and behaviors — in a sense, we rewrite history — in order to maintain our belief that the world is fair and just.


People who achieve fame or fortune even by immoral means will have positive attributes applied to them so as to make sense of their success.

For instance, people who experience misfortune often will be accused of having “deserved” their hardship due to negative traits, says research by Lerner and Carolyn Simmons. Similarly, studies by Fritz Heider in the 1950s showed that people who achieve fame or fortune through pure serendipity, or even by immoral means, will have positive attributes applied to them so as to make sense of their success. So, for instance, although Amazon is alleged to be a harsh and unpleasant place to work, it is also acknowledged as an innovative disrupter of the retail industry — and disruption and innovation are highly valued in the current social context.

Which leads to another psychological mechanism potentially in play: people’s capacity to engage in moral rationalization so they can justify profiting from entities that have engaged in harmful or immoral behavior. A classic example of such “moral decoupling” (a term coined by researchers Amit Bhattacharjee, Jonathan Berman, and Americus Reed in 2013) comes when people argue that private indiscretions should have no bearing on performance in unrelated domains, such as that of executives or sports figures. For instance, Macy’s and J.C. Penney agreed to sell Martha Stewart-branded merchandise in their stores even after Stewart served time in prison for charges related to an insider-trading investigation. The presumed rationale: Stewart’s conviction had nothing to do with her design sensibilities and the power of her personal brand to move merchandise.

Another related factor is our motivation to achieve cognitive consistency. As cognitive dissonance theory argued decades ago, people are motivated toward consistency and congruence in their attitudes and beliefs. It is inconsistent to believe that some person is on the one hand behaving horribly and on the other hand achieving outstanding financial and other forms of success. Since the financial success and social status are reasonably objective and difficult to deny, it is cognitively easier to revalue the behavior as not being so bad or to dismiss negative perceptions of the bad behavior as ignoring positive aspects and consequences.

In discussions of everything from the Greek financial crisis to the “gig economy” to Obamacare, the emphasis all too frequently focuses too much if not exclusively on economic outcomes and costs. Thus, lost in the question of how and how much money Greece should repay were data showing the profoundly adverse health and mortality consequences of austerity. Missing from contemplations of the “sharing economy,” with ever-more people working as contractors, were considerations of the human costs of such disruptive labor arrangements on people’s lives and incomes. Missing from many discussions about the costs of organizing and paying for health care in the United States was the fact that health care, at least some of the time, ought to be about people’s health. You get the point.

The focus on costs, profits, and economic success has pushed concerns of human well-being to the side and has apparently led to a belief, at least as reflected in choices about who and what to honor, that the ends forever justify the means, no matter how harsh. Success, it seems, creates its own reality.

A colleague of mine who teaches at Duke University recently told me about a speech he attended on campus by the CEO of a company that is best left unnamed here. It turned out to be a terrible speech — riddled with platitudes, internal inconsistencies, and false facts. On his way out the door, my friend overheard two students discussing what they’d just heard.

“He’s incredibly rich,” one of them said. “He must be smart.”

This article was adapted from Jeffrey Pfeffer’s essay, “Why the Assholes Are Winning: Money Trumps All,” which appeared in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Management Studies.

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