Education Leadership Conference

Understanding why people behave in ways that are contrary to their ideals can help improve quality in all parts of life, Ann Tenbrunsel, PhD, told participants at APA's Education Leadership Conference (ELC) in September.

That field of research — known as behavioral ethics — focuses on how people behave when they're confronted with dilemmas and respond in ways that contradict their values, without even knowing they're doing it.

Tenbrunsel, a professor of business administration and research director of the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide at the University of Notre Dame, explained that people have four blind spots and challenged ELC participants to consider them in the context of their own programs and organizations:

Ethical illusions. People generally think they're more ethical than they are, said Tenbrunsel. To understand why people have that illusion, she said, it's important to understand what happens during the three phases of decision-making. As people predict how they'll act in certain situations, their "should selves" — or ethical selves — are dominant. But when they actually make a decision, their "want selves" take over, and self-interest rules. Then, as they look back at their actions, their should selves re-assert dominance and they view their behavior as more ethical than it was. This discrepancy between prediction and behavior happens because predictions rely on abstract reasoning, while desirability and feasibility concerns come to the fore at the time of decision-making. Other forces, such as hunger or lack of sleep, can also overwhelm even the most ethical person.

Ethical fading. The way people frame a decision plays a key role in how they view it. In one study, for example, fining parents for picking their children up late from daycare actually increased late pick-ups. Instead of doing the ethical thing, parents reframed the decision as a financial one and decided a few extra minutes of work were worth the $10 fine, Tenbrunsel said, explaining that that's an example of ethical fading or the inability to see that a situation requires an ethical judgment. Euphemisms such as "rightsizing" and "collateral damage" can also contribute to ethical fading, as can the sense that ethics is someone else's job.

Dangerous reward systems. "The brain is good at paying attention to what it is incentivized to do," said Tenbrunsel. In addition to final rewards, social rewards — such as inclusion in powerful groups — can also cause people to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do. Surgical residents intent on getting "scalpel time," for instance, have been found to perform unnecessary operations.

Motivated blindness. "We tend not to see the unethical behavior of others when it's not in our best interest to do so," said Tenbrunsel. Coaches, team owners and fans may overlook steroid use by professional athletes, for example. Investors didn't want to question the reason behind Bernard Madoff's consistent returns. And employees at a nonprofit may not want to confront their boss about lavish expenditures on office decor.

How to avoid these pitfalls? "The first step is to recognize that we aren't as ethical as we'd like to be, think we are and aspire to be," said Tenbrunsel. "The goal is not to get you to recognize, ‘Gosh, I'm not really good'; it's to get you to want to use this information to be the person that you think you are, that you want to be, that you can become."

—Rebecca A. Clay