2012 Day Family Ethics Lecture Explores the Psychology of Unethical Behavior

Business Professor and Social Psychologist Ann Tenbrunsel Delivers Guest Lecture

2012 Day Family Ethics Lecture Explores the Psychology of Unethical Behavior

From Bernard Madoff to Enron, cases of unethical behavior are ubiquitous. Although leaders in both business and education try to stem wrongdoing, the components of unethical situations and decisions are rooted in complexities. Understanding these complexities and the psychology behind why individuals behave unethically is a critical component to fully comprehend and tackle the issue, according to Ann Tenbrunsel, who delivered the 2012 Day Family Ethics Lecture on April 3 at Johnson.

Sponsored by the Dr. Harry M. Day Charitable Foundation and the Cornell Law School, Tenbrunsel’s lecture, "Ethical Blindspots: The Psychology of Unethical Behavior," explored why people will, at times, undermine their own principles and act in contrary, unethical ways. 

Tenbrunsel, who is a professor, researcher, author, and co-author of six books on ethics, highlighted several "blind spots" that hamstring the ability to think rationally, make decisions effectively, plan accurately, and reflect honestly. For the more than 80 audience members, she also shared factors at play in ethical failures and explained how to close the gap between intended and actual ethical behavior.    

"You need to recognize your blind spots and recognize that we're not as ethical as we think we are," said Tenbrunsel. "I say this so you can use this information so you can become the person you want to be."

When looking back on past decisions, Tenbrunsel said people will typically see decisions as more ethical than they really were, or they won't remember unethical actions.

Throughout her lecture, Tenbrunsel incorporated theories, studies that she and other researchers have conducted, and real-world examples of transgressions. She also used a video clip on “change blindness” to demonstrate how we limit our own awareness, Viewers, who are directed to track one thing at the beginning of the clip,  realize at the end that they were so focused on that specific thing that another clearly visible phenomenon, one that is wildly out of context, went unnoticed.

“I thought it was a powerful demonstration of how tasks and rewards can cause us to be myopic,” said Eric Gladstone, Johnson doctoral candidate, of the video clip.

Tenbrunsel applied the phenomenon of change blindness to the business world, saying if an employee and boss have shared goals, the employee will not be motivated to see unethical behavior the boss may engage to reach those goals.  "You are motivated not to see the unethical behaviors of [your] boss or the people above you because it generally doesn't do [you] any good," Tenbrunsel added.

Tenbrunsel also encouraged the audience to think about compartmentalization, asking, "To what extent do we design our job and responsibilities so we don't see ethical responsibilities in our backyard?" She explained that identifying an ethical problem is often arduous because decisions are laced with financial, business, and social complexities – and the ethics fade amid other factors.

After the lecture, Andrew Schwartz, MBA '12, reflected on ethical illusions, one of the blind spots Tenbrunsel  identified:. "We all think we know the difference between right and wrong,” he said. “But clearly that's not the case, as we've seen in a myriad of white collar business scandals in the last decade.”

Dana Radcliffe, Day Family Senior Lecturer in Business Ethics and senior lecturer of management, recognizes this challenge and addresses it, among other topics, in his ethics courses. “I want my students to be primed to see ethical choice situations when they encounter them — no small thing, since failing to see the ethical nature of choices (what Ann terms ‘ethical fading’) is something to which we’re all vulnerable,” he said. “I also want students to be prepared, when facing those situations, to ask questions integral to sound decision making: ‘Who will be affected by what I do? How would they view my decision? What do I owe them?’” 

Schwartz, who has taken Radcliffe’s ethics classes, agrees that studying ethics helps build a foundation to be able to work through complex decisions, better equipping future business leaders to handle ethical dilemmas. “I think it's important that ethics classes are interwoven into the MBA curriculum so students can reflect on where others have gone wrong — from an ethical perspective — in the past, so these scandals don't continue to occur," he said.



—     Pamela Woodford

The article author disables the comment feature.