Explaining Unethical Decision Making: The Problem with Tunnel-Vision

Topic(s): ethics, Judgment

Topic: Ethics, Judgement
Publication: Judgment and Decision Making
Article: Is that the answer you had in mind? The effect of perspective on unethical
Authors: Schurr, A., Ritov, I., Kareev, Y., and Avrahami, J.
Reviewer: Neil Morelli

When someone makes a “bad” or unethical decision inside or outside the workplace, we oftentimes ask the question: why? Perhaps answering this question is important because it helps us make sense of the behavior, as well as helping us prevent it from happening again in the future.

Schurr and colleagues recently sought an answer to the question, “Why?”, when explaining unethical behavior. They proposed that people make unethical decisions because of how those decisions are framed. In other words, an individual’s perspective of a decision can be either narrow or broad; narrow being that a decision or sequence of decisions are considered in isolation, broad being that a decision or set of decisions is framed in a broader context in that the aggregate consequences of the decision(s) are considered.

To test this idea, the authors had students face an ethical dilemma by giving them an
opportunity to be rewarded for cheating at a trivia game. This was measured by asking the students to participate in a practice round, then allowing them to self-score their answers in a monetarily incentivized “real” round. The researchers found that those in the “narrow” condition (students asked to move straight from the practice round to real round) were more likely to cheat than those in the broad condition (students asked to plan which questions they would see
in advance). In a follow-up experiment where no monetary incentive was involved, the level of cheating dropped off significantly.

These results demonstrate that when there is incentive to do so, and a person is applying tunnel-vision to their decision making, the chances for unethical decisions increase. Said a different way, when choices are made sequentially, in isolation, versus when they are planned ahead and considered to be an aggregate choice, the chances for unethical behavior increases.

The authors warn that this study shows that the guardrails for “acceptable” behavior can move depending on a person’s perspective. But, when a person considers his/her decision or set of decisions more broadly (i.e., the greater consequences of the decision and how it affects a larger context), those guardrails stand out more saliently and are harder to “reset”. Thus, by helping people think more broadly about how their decisions connect to the larger world, organizations, leaders, and trainers can feel better that the decisions being made are more ethical.

Schurr, A., Ritov, I., Kareev, Y., & Avrahami, J. (2012). Is that the answer you had in mind? The effect of perspective on unethical behavior. Judgment and Decision Making, 7(6), 679-688.

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management



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