In “Teaching Behavioral Ethics” – which will be published next year by the Journal of Legal Studies Education, and a draft of which can be found here – Robert Prentice of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas presents his pedagogical approach to behavioral ethics. The paper should be useful not only to other business school professors in preparing their own ethics classes but also to C&E professionals who are considering training business people on “‘the next big thing’ in ethics…”
Prentice’s article describes in considerable detail what he covers in each session of his course. The first addresses why it is important to be ethical, including the many positive as well as negative reasons, and the second the sources of ethical judgments, with a key point being that such judgments tend to be more emotion based than is commonly realized.
The next few classes are about “Breaking down the defenses,” which make the overarching behaviorist point “we are not as ethical as we think” and which explore many key concepts in the field, including self-serving bias; role morality; framing; the effect of various environmental factors – such as time pressure and transparency – on ethical behavior; obedience to authority; conformity bias; overconfidence; loss aversion; incrementalism; the tangible and the abstract; bounded ethicality; ethical fading; fundamental attribution error; and moral equilibrium. Prentice also discusses research showing that “people are of two minds,” and “tend to be very good at thinking of themselves as good people who do as they should while simultaneously doing as they want,” as well as the related facts that we often don’t do a very good job in predicting the ethicality of future actions and are not especially accurate in remembering the ethicality of our past actions. At various points in the paper he illustrates these phenomena not only with behavioral studies but also with well-known cases of legal/ethical transgression (e.g., Martha Stewart’s conviction for obstruction of justice as a possible manifestation of loss aversion).
The final part of Prentice’s course is aimed at helping students be their “best selves.” This begins with teaching the differences between the “should self” and the “want self,” and the importance of incorporating the needs of the want self in advance, e.g., by rehearsing what one would do if faced by a particular ethical dilemma. Also important to being one’s best self is “keeping one’s ethical antennae up….[to] always be looking for the ethical aspect of a decision so that [one’s] ethical values can be part of the frame through which” a problem is examined. As well, Prentice exhorts his students to “monitor their own rationalizations,” and use pre-commitment devices to decrease the influence of the “want self.” Finally, he discusses research by Mary Gentile showing that more often than is appreciated, “one person can, even in the face of peer pressure or instructions from a superior, turn things in an ethical direction if only they will try.”
All told, this seems like a great course, and I wish that it could be taught in every company as well as in business school. Of course, those providing C&E training in the workplace typically are not given a semester’s worth of time to do so, and indeed there seems to be a recent trend in the field of C&E training – particularly given the “training fatigue” that one finds in some companies – to try to do more with even less. However, I do think some of the behavioral notions discussed in Prentice’s article can be the basis of compelling workplace training.
First, the fact that it is a relatively new area of knowledge, that it is science based and that it is clearly interesting can make behavioral ethics more appealing to business people than a lot of traditional C&E training. Indeed, using behavioral ethics ideas and information can be a welcome relief from “training fatigue.”
Second, the lessons about how to become our “best selves” are indeed quite practical, and for that reason should be welcome in the workplace. Indeed, given the many careers that have been damaged/destroyed by business people not keeping their “ethical antennae up,” these lessons should be seen as business survival skills.
Third, the totality of these studies showing we’re not as ethical as we think helps makes the case – as well as any legal imperative ever could – for the need for companies to have strong C&E programs. This should be part of any C&E training (as well, in my view, business school ethics classes), but is particularly important to include in training of boards of directors and senior managers.
Finally, directors and senior managers have an espescially strong need to learn about behavioral ethics research showing that those with power tend to be more ethically at risk than are others, as discussed in various prior posts – such as this one (review of an important paper by Scott Killingsworth), this one and this one, to which should be added this recently posted paper about a study to showing that “employees higher in a hierarchy are more likely to engage in deception…” than are others. To my mind, the prospect of helping companies with the politically sensitive task of bringing sufficient compliance focus to bear on their heavy hitters is as important as is any of the other possible real-world contributions of this promising and fascinating new field of knowledge.