Bad apples, bad cases, and bad barrels: meta-analytic evidence about sources of unethical decisions at work

J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):1-31. doi: 10.1037/a0017103.


As corporate scandals proliferate, practitioners and researchers alike need a cumulative, quantitative understanding of the antecedents associated with unethical decisions in organizations. In this meta-analysis, the authors draw from over 30 years of research and multiple literatures to examine individual ("bad apple"), moral issue ("bad case"), and organizational environment ("bad barrel") antecedents of unethical choice. Findings provide empirical support for several foundational theories and paint a clearer picture of relationships characterized by mixed results. Structural equation modeling revealed the complexity (multidetermined nature) of unethical choice, as well as a need for research that simultaneously examines different sets of antecedents. Moderator analyses unexpectedly uncovered better prediction of unethical behavior than of intention for several variables. This suggests a need to more strongly consider a new "ethical impulse" perspective in addition to the traditional "ethical calculus" perspective. Results serve as a data-based foundation and guide for future theoretical and empirical development in the domain of behavioral ethics.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Choice Behavior
  • Decision Making, Organizational
  • Ethics, Professional*
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Intuition
  • Organizational Culture
  • Workplace / organization & administration*
  • Workplace / psychology
  • Workplace / statistics & numerical data