December 8, 2023

Shortcuts: Why Doing the Ethical Thing Isn’t Automatic

Putting aside the specifics of each case, one question that has come up is, “What would I do?” That is, if I saw what seemed to be a crime or unethical act committed by a respected colleague, coach, teacher or friend, would I storm in and stop it? Would I call the authorities immediately? Would I disregard the potentially devastating impact on my job or workplace or beloved institution?

Absolutely, most of us would probably reply. I think so, others might respond. And the most honest answer? I don’t know.

As much as we would like to think that, put on the spot, we would do the right — and perhaps even heroic — thing, research has shown that that usually isn’t true.

“People are routinely more willing to be critical of others’ ethics than of their own,” said Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, and two other authors in the journal article “See No Evil: When We Overlook Other People’s Unethical Behavior.” The article appeared as a chapter in the book “Social Decision Making” (Psychology Press, 2009). “People believe they are more honest and trustworthy than others and they try harder to do good.”

But our faith in ourselves isn’t borne out by history or research, something the Times columnist David Brooks pointed out in his column this week.

The most well-known example of this in academia is the experiment conducted by the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. In the experiment, participants were “teachers” and, unbeknown to the participants, the “learner” was really an actor. The teacher was to instruct the learner in word pairs. For every wrong answer, the teacher could shock the learner, increasing the intensity of the shock for each wrong answer.

In reality, there were no shocks (the teacher couldn’t see the learner), but the person administering the shocks didn’t know that. In fact, the learner would bang on the wall, supposedly in pain, as the shocks “increased.”

In the end, a majority of the “teachers” administered the strongest shock of 450 volts, and the experiment was replicated elsewhere with similar results. The findings are depressing — that ordinary people can be easily persuaded to do something they believe is wrong.

“People would sit there crying and sweating, but they didn’t want to be rude,” said Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and author of numerous books including, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)” (Harcourt, 2007). But most people say they believe they would act differently from the participants, despite evidence to the contrary, she said.

For example, Professor Gino said, she and her colleagues asked female job candidates what they would do if inappropriate comments were made in a job interview.

“Most said they would walk away or raise a red flag,” she said. “But in reality, when it happened, they didn’t do that. Across the board, research points to the fact that people want to behave well but give in to temptations.”

Research also shows that it is much easier to step over the boundary from ethical to unethical when there is a gradual erosion of moral values and principles rather than one big leap.

A 2009 article in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, also co-written by Professor Gino, used as an example an accounting firm that has an excellent relationship with a client company. The accounting firm, which receives tens of millions of dollars in fees from the client, approves the company’s high-quality and ethical financial statements.

For three years, everything is fine. But suddenly, in the fourth year, the company stretches and even breaks the limits of the law.

Another case? Same accounting firm, same client. This time, after the first good year, the client bit by bit pushes the ethical envelope over the next three years.

The accounting firm would be more likely to approve the financial statements in the second case than in the first, the article says.

One of the reasons, Professor Gino and her colleague write, is that “unethical acts can become an integral part of the day-to-day activities to such an extent that individuals may be unable to see the inappropriateness of their behaviors.”


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