This book is concerned with misbehavior—that is, behaviors that violate widely accepted norms and that have the potential to be destructive or cause harm. The term “misbehavior” covers a wide range of possibilities, from incivility to genocide, but there are two broad strands that link different types of misbehaviors together. First, misbehavior might be self-directed (e.g., substance abuse), directed toward individuals (e.g., sexual harassment) or organizations and institutions (e.g., employee theft). Second, they vary in terms of the amount of harm they might involve; an isolated incident of incivility might cause relatively little harm, but the social and psychological processes documented in this book can lead people to participate willingly in murder, rape, arson, and the like. Seven case studies are presented that vividly illustrate various categories of misbehavior as well as some of the processes that contribute to misbehavior (e.g., diffusion of responsibility, dehumanization, motivated reasoning).

I describe the two main pathways by which the social and psychological processes that encourage or allow misbehavior most often operate—that is, social influence and social cognition. First, groups, organizations, and institutions use a range of rewards and sanctions to influence the behavior of their members and of individuals they interact with. Second, people learn to think about particular types of behavior differently, sometimes leading them to believe that behaviors that seem to violate widely held norms are expected and approved of. These two processes will be examined in Chapters 3 and 4; the ways these processes sometimes lead to misbehavior will be examined in several of the chapters that follow.