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Why People Phone Hack; a Look Into the Psyche of Wrongdoing

By ­niversity of Alabama at Birmingham

July 27, 2011

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Phone hacking. It doesn't even sound ethical. Neither does phone spying nor my personal favorite — phreaking.

So how does management at the best-selling newspaper News of the World approve this and everyone else play along?

"Some people may have remained quiet because they believed that this was acceptable practice — perfectly normal for the non-naïve," says University of Alabama at Birmingham social psychologist Rex Wright. "Some people consider you to be naive if you abide by conventional rules of ethics."

The first allegations of phone hacking against NOTW came in 2005 when the British Royal Family accused the paper of intercepting voice mails. The investigation led to two resignations and two guilty pleas in January 2007. Many believed the violations extended beyond the Royal Family but the investigation ended.

Four years later to the month the Metropolitan Police announced a new investigation into the phone hacking scandal. The new investigation revealed the phone hacking continued despite the 2007 convictions.

"People might have felt that this was a small price to pay for a very lucrative activity," says Wright, professor in the UAB Department of Psychology. "They also might have believed the odds of getting caught twice were small, especially if police officials were turning a blind eye. They might have had some arrangement with officials that allowed them to continue if they had resignations and convictions on occasion."

There is a lot more to this scandal than we know or may ever know. We know phone hacking went on for years. We know a lot of people knew, yet nobody stopped the behavior. "People can become convinced that something is okay as a result of watching others," Wright says. "Consider a boy watching an uncle sell drugs. If the uncle is admired, the kid could come to believe that selling drugs is in fact okay and ethical."

It is likely people did recognize phone hacking is wrong but remained silent. To stand up against a group, especially management, means you must be willing to suffer consequences. History is littered with people who paid an exorbitant price for taking a stand. When that cost affects yourself and your loved ones harshly, you better be correct.

"Life is complicated and people are not always right just because they think they are right," says Wright. "Wise people tend to have a strong measure of modesty about the conclusions that they draw, including ones relevant to ethics."


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