A forum for fraud-fighting faculty in higher ed

Examining the theory of rationalization

By Mary-Jo Kranacher, MBA, CFE, CPA
Fraud Edge

After teaching in higher education since 1985, it's been my experience that sometimes the tables turn and the student becomes the teacher.  

This was the case during my recent Fraud Examination class. The classroom discussion centered on Donald Cressey's fraud triangle: incentives/pressure, opportunity, and rationalization. One of my students said he believed that perpetrators' rationalizations occur AFTER they're caught. The basis for his contention was that "friends" who engaged in fraudulent activity knew it was wrong at the point when they planned the fraudulent behavior but didn't care. Once they were caught and only after being asked "why" they perpetrated the fraud, did they conceive their reasons, my student said.

The next week, a technology professor posted a message on the university listserv asking for assistance on how to respond to a student's assertion about an ethical dilemma. The message went something like this:

"The chapter in our textbook is dealing with ethical issues (in technical writing and technology), and the students are working on a particular case to determine their ethical stance on the issue presented. The assignment is to write a letter explaining their reasoning.
"One of my students wrote: 'Since many people, not just one, are involved in this unethical situation, each individual has less guilt.'

"Here's my question: What do you think of this? I feel that the student is not correct, but it is a gut feeling; I am not exactly sure why it is not right. I am not sure if there is simply a difference of opinion (between the student and me) or whether this is an ethical issue. The textbook offers no clue. How would you respond to the student?"

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