Study Asks White Collar Criminals What They Were Thinking. Answer? They Weren't

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Dec 16, 2016
Cook the Books

A researcher who interviewed 50 prominent white collar criminals, including former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow and former KPMG executive Scott London, found that far from being calculating schemers twirling a vaudevillian mustache, corporate crooks committed their crimes quite casually, giving little thought as to the social or ethical consequences of their actions, according to an article in The Atlantic. This stands in contrast to other research that paints white collar crime as a rational process driven by cost-benefit analysis. While most of the former executives he interviewed acknowledged they did something wrong, the researcher found that many times even they were mystified as to why they ultimately decided to do it.

For example, the former CEO of ImClone systems, who went to jail for insider trading, told the researcher that, rather than being some grand scheme to line his pockets, was something he put little thought into at all. While he knew what he was doing was against the law, he didn't really think much about what the consequences would be and so casually told his daughter to dump shares he knew were going to lose value. The researcher notes that had he actually thought about things more deeply, he could probably have come up with a better scheme than just calling his daughter on the phone.

Others justified it to themselves by thinking what they were doing was for the good of the company (for instance, by cooking the books) while others minimized their actions in their heads by saying they didn't think authorities would care about the amounts they were dealing with.

The researcher theorizes that white collar crime feels rather abstract in its consequences even though it has the same effect of knocking someone over the head and rifling through their wallet (though usually much bigger). The difference, of course, is that you actually have to look at the person you mug. You don't have to see the person whose retirement account you're skimming from, or the shareholders who lose money when your crimes come to light. This distance can shut down the natural gut aversion people can have to harming others, making corporate crime feel less significant to them and, therefore, less deserving of careful ethical calculation.

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