Be if office or home, thinking about the long-term consequences of misbehaving can help you do the right thing, says a new study.

Honest behaviour is quite like sticking to a diet. When facing an ethical dilemma, being aware of the temptation helps even before it happens.

"Unethical behaviour is rampant across various domains ranging from business and politics to education and sports," said Ayelet Fishbach, behavioural science and marketing professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

In a series of experiments that included common ethical dilemmas, such as calling in sick to work and negotiating a home sale, the researchers found that two factors together promoted ethical behaviour.

Participants who identified a potential ethical dilemma as connected to other similar incidents and who also anticipated the temptation to act unethically were more likely to behave honestly than participants who did not.

In one experiment involving workplace scenarios, participants were less likely to say it is okay to steal office supplies, call into work sick when they are not really ill or intentionally work slowly to avoid additional tasks, if they anticipated an ethical dilemma through a writing exercise in advance and if they considered a series of ethical dilemmas all at once.

In other words, people are more likely to engage in unethical behaviour if they believe the act is an isolated incident and if they don’t think about it ahead of time.

"Organisations seeking to improve ethical behaviour can do so by helping people recognise the cumulative impact of unethical acts and by providing warning cues for upcoming temptation," Fishbach said.

The results of the experiments also have the potential to help policy makers, educators and employers devise strategies to encourage people to behave ethically.

The study by Fishbach and assistant professor Oliver J. Sheldon from Rutgers Business School was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.