Why Do Smart People Make Bad Choices? Ethics Lapses and Emotional Triggers:

Human beings will have lapses of judgement – that’s just part of human nature.  But the question I often hear is why do smart people make bad choices?  And when they do what are the consequences?

In an article in Law.com it was reported that Assistant U.S. Attorney Mignonne Griffing of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Louisiana had a secret romance with a married FBI agent and failed to tell her bosses or defense counsel in two high-profile cases about her love interest.  Now, to be clear, when a person ceases to think from the rational part of their brain (yes this is fundamental brain science) they tend to rationalize their behavior and hence go to fight of flight mode of decision making.  That leads to consequences that are unpleasant at best and can be down right devastating.  Why do smart people make bad choices – most of the time there is an emotional trigger.  But before getting to that here’s the back story as reported in Law.com.

When the affair came to light, she was dishonest or misled then-U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley about the relationship, according to court documents in the attorney disciplinary case.

“Respondent’s personal interest in keeping quiet her relationship with the FBI agent deprived her client, the United States through her superiors, of information they needed to make informed decisions relative to the representation of the government and disclosure obligations to defendants,” the ruling said.

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Oct. 18 suspended Griffing from practicing law for one year and one day, but deferred half of the sentence, which means Griffing’s actual suspension will run six months. She’ll then face one year of unsupervised probation and have to complete 40 hours of continuing legal education in ethics and professionalism, according to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s per curiam ruling in In Re C. Mignonne Griffing.

Why Do Smart People Make Bad Choices

In my ethics programs I point out that there are three primary reasons why smart people make bad choices.  Each of them are emotional triggers, triggers that biologically predispose us to move from the frontal lobe of our brains (where rational though takes place) to our lizard brain (not a biological term) where we move into survival mode leading to fight or flight.  The three emotional triggers are: Financial Problems, Relationship Problems or Health Issues.  Why do smart people make bad choices – emotional triggers!

Notice in the Griffing case – she had a love interest with a married man.  Relationship Problem!  Again this is why smart people make bad choices.

To be clear I don’t know anyone in this case, but I do know human nature.  Love interest with married man would, by nature, dictate secrecy on both parts.  But the nature of the job would demand transparency – not something that congruent with the private actions in place.  When you consider the opening question: why do smart people make bad choices – you see how poor actions triggered by emotional responses lead to irrational choices and actions.

More of the story

Law.com reports:

Griffing has been a federal prosecutor since 1990 and most recently prosecuted white collar crime and public corruption cases, according to the ruling. She became involved in an intimate, romantic relationship with an FBI agent who led the investigations into many of her cases. He didn’t always testify at trial, but he often testified before grand juries and in other hearings that Griffing handled. Griffing and the agent kept their relationship confidential because he was married.

Griffing has been a federal prosecutor since 1990 and most recently prosecuted white collar crime and public corruption cases, according to the ruling. She became involved in an intimate, romantic relationship with an FBI agent who led the investigations into many of her cases. He didn’t always testify at trial, but he often testified before grand juries and in other hearings that Griffing handled. Griffing and the agent kept their relationship confidential because he was married.

The agent was lead investigator in two of Griffing’s big public corruption cases involving two city councilmen in Monroe and the sheriff in Ouachita Parish.

Although the court noted that there was no evidence that the agent’s testimony was untruthful nor that the relationship affected his testimony, the court took particular issue with Griffing’s case against the sheriff. In that matter, Griffing had allegedly agreed with the sheriff’s lawyer, Marty Stroud, that if the sheriff were indicted, he would be allowed to self-surrender. She later learned, however, that the sheriff was talking to others about her relationship with the FBI agent, according to the decision. She then called Stroud and threatened to have the sheriff publicly arrested if he didn’t stop making such statements. The sheriff subsequently was indicted and arrested, handcuffed and led away by law enforcement. The sheriff later fired Stroud as counsel.

In most every case where there is an ethics lapse – the web of deceipt creates actions that, in hind sight, are stupid.  It is so clear that, looking back, what was happening was wrong (and I’m not judging love, but rather professional misconduct – let’s leave love to others more qualified).  The truth is in answer to why do smart people make bad choices – when the house of cards tend to crash down there is a pattern of deception that almost certainly proceeds the collapse.  Again according to Law.com:

Eventually, the U.S. Attorney’s Office learned from Stroud about Griffing’s relationship. When the office questioned her about it, she falsely denied or misled the U.S. attorney at first, but later told the truth to the first assistant U.S. attorney. She was suspended without pay for 19 days and returned to work as an appellate attorney.

Louisiana’s Office of the Disciplinary Counsel alleged that Griffing’s misconduct had violated rules that: prohibit an attorney with a conflict from representing a client; require a prosecutor to disclose exculpatory or mitigating evidence to the defense; prohibit a lawyer from engaging in conduct that prejudices the administration of justice; and prohibit a lawyer from dishonest, fraudulent, deceitful or misrepresentative conduct.

During the disciplinary case, Griffing admitted her relationship with the agent, and the fact that she had a duty to disclose the relationship to the U.S. attorney and the defendants. She denied that there was a conflict of interest though, and she denied that she committed misconduct in having the sheriff arrested.

Griffing’s behavior caused the U.S. attorney’s office’s to lose respect and confidence in Monroe, said the ruling. She also hurt Stroud’s business and professional reputation. The situation might even harm other cases if someone raises the relationship issue again.

Considering Griffin’s multiple rule violations and especially her dishonesty and misrepresentation, the high court decided that she must serve an actual period of suspension.

“We have not previously had the opportunity to address directly the misconduct of a government prosecutor who maintained an intimate or romantic relationship with a law enforcement agent called as a witness,” the court wrote. “However, we have repeatedly held that public officials—and prosecutors in particular—are held to a higher standard than ordinary attorneys.”

It’s Just Human Nature

That’s what I heard at a prior ethics program I did for Fortune 100 company!  Sorry, but that is “rationalization” and “rationalization” is like wet cement it’s what causes people to believe that poor choices have no consequences.  The truth is – every choice has a consequence!

 

 

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Posted by Chuck Gallagher in Ethical Behavior, ethics and tagged , , , , .

1 Responses to Why Do Smart People Make Bad Choices? Ethics Lapses and Emotional Triggers:

  1. knoxtabb: October 23, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    Thanks Chuck! 15 years of addiction counseling & 20 of marriage makes for many lessons of biblical proportions!

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