People in groups have a tendency to behave badly. I know that, but I was still amazed at what happened in West Seattle. A 60-year-old mentally ill...

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People in groups have a tendency to behave badly.

I know that, but I was still amazed at what happened in West Seattle. A 60-year-old mentally ill man whose dysfunction was obvious went to the Huling Brothers dealership to buy a truck. He wasn’t taken seriously until he said he had a large stash of cash at home.

They sold him a truck, police say, taking advantage of him on the price and adding to it with a big warranty; a heartless thing to do but not unexpected.

Then one guy allegedly raised the idea of stealing the rest of the man’s money — $70,000 in all. That’s when someone should have asked, uh, wouldn’t that be a crime? Someone should have gone to a higher-up (other than the manager involved).

Instead, when the opportunity presented itself, several people allegedly rummaged through the man’s house for cash. Three people have been charged and eight others are being investigated.

To anyone looking at their action, the wrongness of it is clearer than Mount Rainier on a sunny day.

But people have a persistent habit of letting groups cloud their personal values. That almost always means trouble.

It can be as big as Enron, as dramatic as Abu Ghraib, or as commonplace as the wee fudging that goes on in your workplace.

Psychologists have studied the phenomenon in detail. I asked Christina Fong about the case. She’s an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Washington Business School.

First, there are the people who knew what was going on but didn’t intervene. Something called diffusion of responsibility applies when people are in a group. You look to other people for cues, she said. Do I want to get involved?

A person might think that either this must not be what I’m seeing or someone else is going to take care of it.

Then there are the people who actually did wrong. There are lots of examples of groups creating a culture of corruption. Group think takes over, she said, “When it is more important to stay part of the group than to stick to your own personal morals.”

Fong said it makes sense for businesses to have an explicit moral code and have employees sign on to it.

What a business rewards people for matters.

If salesmen who get the most money from customers get status and bonuses, the culture will be different than it would in a place where management rewards building relationships with customers.

Something else played a part in this case. People act differently when there is a big power differential.

Fong said research shows that when a person has all the power, he loses normal inhibitions. People in that situation believe social laws and norms don’t apply to them.

Once one person misbehaves, it’s a lot easier for the next one. And as more people join in, pressure to conform grows.

That is most likely to happen in tight-knit groups.

This case is over the top, but the underlying behaviors it showcases are too common. Values drive behavior. Guard your values.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.