In Life and Business, Learning to Be Ethical

The New York Times:

LOTS of New Year’s resolutions are being made — and no doubt ignored — at this time of year. But there’s one that’s probably not even on many lists and should be: Act more ethically.

Most people, if pressed, would acknowledge that they could use an ethical tuneup. Maybe last year they fudged some numbers at work. Dented a car and failed to leave a note. Remained silent when a friend made a racist joke.

The problem, research shows, is that how we think we’re going to act when faced with a moral decision and how we really do act are often vastly different.

Here’s just one of many examples from an experiment at Northeastern University: Subjects were told they should flip a coin to see who should do certain tasks. One task is long and laborious; the other is short and fun.

The participant flips the coin in private (though secretly watched by video cameras), said David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern who conducted the experiment. Only 10 percent of them did it honestly. The others didn’t flip at all, or kept flipping until the coin came up the way they wanted.

Trying to become more ethical — or teaching people how to — would seem doomed then. But that’s not true. It’s just that how we teach ethics has to catch up with what we know about how the human mind works.

One area clearly in need of attention is business ethics, especially given the transgressions in the financial world in recent years. Some of the nation’s top researchers think so too. Next week, a group of them — most based at American universities — will officially introduce a new website, EthicalSystems.org. The site is the first to pull together extensive research and resources on the subject of business ethics with the aim of making the vast trove available to schools, government regulators and businesses — especially their compliance officers.

“It used to be business ethics grew out of philosophy, with a focus on the right thing to do,” said Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business. “In the last 10 years there’s been an explosion of research in behavioral economics” and the underlying reasons people act the way they do.

Some of the research was informed by the scandals at Enron and WorldCom unfolding at the time, as well as the global financial crises.

Those events, in part, “inspired a small group of researchers to develop a more psychologically realistic approach to business ethics,” said Professor Haidt, who spearheaded the website.

Read the whole story: The New York Times

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