As a young girl, Taya Cohen made a simple observation: "good" people often do bad things, and "bad people" often do good things. But why?
Now as an assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, she is finding the answers.
"What leads people to lie, cheat and steal? Is it something about their personality or character? Is it something about the situations they are faced with on a daily basis? My research suggests it is a complex interaction of the two," she said.
Cohen investigates how personality and situational factors influence unethical behavior, conflict, negotiation and intergroup relations.
"Some people are predisposed to act more ethically than others," she said. "But even the most moral people are capable of extremely unethical behavior when situational factors push them in that direction."
Cohen initiated research in this area by building with her colleagues a measurement instrument known as the GASP (the Guilt And Shame Proneness scale) to learn more about why people behave unethically.
"Fostering ethical behaviors is a widespread concern. In all sectors of our life — government, the workplace, social organizations, the family, and so on, ethical versus unethical behaviors affect our well-being," explained CMU's Paul S. Goodman, the Richard M. Cyert Professor of Organizational Psychology.
"An important challenge is to understand why people choose to act in ethical or unethical ways. This understanding can enhance our ability to create environments that facilitate ethical decision making and inhibit unethical decision making," he said.
The GASP scale is designed to help researchers better understand how individual differences lead to unethical decisions.
As she pursues this research, Cohen wants to understand how guilt proneness relates to other dimensions of personality, how it changes over time, and how it influences ethical and unethical work behaviors.
Her plan is to investigate these questions by surveying employed adults about their character, personality emotions, work behaviors, and treatment by managers and co-workers.
Cohen's 2010 article on guilt and shame in the journal Self and Identity, co-authored with S. T. Wolf, A. T. Panter, and C. A. Insko, was awarded "Best Paper of the Year" by the International Society for Self and Identity.