The conformity bias is the tendency we all have to take our cues from those around us as to how to dress, what music to listen to, and, as it happens, what moral decisions to make. If we are lucky enough to be with people who generally try to do the right thing, then we will find it relatively easy to do the right thing ourselves. If we are unfortunate and find ourselves surrounded by self-serving individuals with only a passing acquaintance with morality, we may find it particularly difficult to do the right thing. Indeed, studies (Pierce & Snyder) show that as many individuals move from one unit of a firm that has generally high moral standards to another unit that does not, their own actions often will degrade as well. Naturally, the more similar these others are to us (Same family? Same company? Same religion? Same culture?) the more influential we will find their examples.
This blog often examines financial, political, and other sorts of scandals where the conformity bias played a role in the spread of bad behavior. We probably don’t spend enough time examining situations where the conformity bias does the opposite—encourages and inspires good behavior
Consider former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who recently became a star witness in the televised January 6 Committee hearings. Hutchinson reportedly found herself in an uncomfortable position where, at the urging of a Trump team-provided attorney, she had not been particularly forthcoming when first interviewed by committee staffers. She had been urged to focus on protecting Trump and giving as few details as possible. She had been both bribed and threatened to induce her cooperation with Team Trump. And, as a consequence, she realized that she had misled the committee in her testimony.
According to interviews with Hutchinson, she searched the internet for “Watergate” and found Alexander Butterfield, famous for revealing the existence of President Nixon’s secret recording system that made Nixon’s downfall inevitable once the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon could not keep the recordings confidential. Hutchinson apparently read the relevant passages in Bob Woodward’s book about Butterfield—The Last of the President’s Men (2015)(“LPM”)—three times. She felt that she was in exactly the situation that Butterfield had found himself in. Both were caught up in a scandal not of their own making, knew damaging information about their allegedly corrupt bosses, but were expected to stay loyal and stay quiet.
The good news—from an ethics point of view—is that it appears that Hutchinson decided to focus on the mirror test. She wanted to act in a way that allowed her to comfortably look herself in the mirror during the rest of her life. Butterfield, she thought, had passed that test when he refused to lie or say “I don’t recall” when queried by the Watergate Committee about the recording system.
More good news—and a point we have made in this blog before: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/i-need-a-hero-why-others-good-deeds-make-us-better-people–is that seeing others do the right thing often inspires us to do the right thing. It triggers the moral emotion of elevation. Butterfield’s choosing to act the hero inspired Hutchinson to emulate his actions, as she perceived them.
Humans being the complicated creatures that they are, the Woodward book makes clear that Butterfield had multiple motives for making his revelations. Yes, he wanted to do the right thing, but he was also driven by his antipathy for Nixon whom he had come to clearly believe was a horrible human being. He felt the entire Nixon White House was a “cesspool,” its actions driven largely by Nixon’s overwhelming obsession with punishing his many perceived enemies. (LPM, p. 136)
In a later interview, Butterfield said that he answered the question about the taping system truthfully, “because I am a truthful person.” (LPM, p. 157) Yet, he indicated that if he had not been asked specifically about the taping system, he would never have volunteered the information. (LPM, p. 157) He told Woodward: “I’m not trying to be like a Boy Scout and tell you I did it because it was the right thing to do.” (LPM, p. 156) Butterfield also admitted that he was lying when he said during his testimony that “the president is innocent of any crime or wrongdoing.” Butterfield knew full well that Nixon was up to his neck in the Watergate cover-up and numerous other crimes. (LPM, p. 169) He told this lie to minimize the negative consequences that he feared that he would face because of his testimony, including being blackballed by former friends and colleagues who remained Nixon loyalists. Butterfield did suffer those consequences as, no doubt, will Cassidy Hutchinson.
Fortunately, Hutchinson appears to have latched onto the most positive of the many lessons she could have taken from Alexander Butterfield’s example: that truthful people should tell the whole truth as best they can, even in the face of significant negative consequences.
The self-serving bias almost guarantees that people seldom act with motives that are 100% pure. Sure, Alexander Butterfield disclosed the taping system, but he also had reason to gain a little revenge on Richard Nixon who had mistreated him. Certainly Cassidy Hutchinson was motivated in large part by a desire to do the right thing so that she could look herself in the mirror for the rest of her life, but she was also worried that she was being set up. The sketchy advice she received from the Trump Team lawyer had led her to lie about what she recalled and, according to Hutchinson, he urged her not to correct her statement and to risk a contempt citation if need be. Fortunately, she obtained new counsel and stepped forward to correct the record in a way that Alexander Butterfield never did.
Luke Broadwater & Alan Feuer, Jan. 6 Witness Told Panel That Lawyer Tried to Influence Her Testimony, New York Times, Dec. 22, 2022, at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/22/us/politics/jan-6-hutchinson-testimony-transcript.html.
Edward Helmore, Transcripts Reveal Cassidy Hutchinson Was Pressured to Protect Trump: ‘I Was Scared,’ The Guardian, Dec. 24, 2022, at https://www.theguardian.com/profile/edwardhelmore/2022/dec/24/all.
Steven Lubet, Cassidy Hutchinson Transcript Reveals New Low for Trump World, The Hill, Dec. 28, 2022, at https://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/3789257-cassidy-hutchinson-transcript-reveals-new-low-for-trump-world/.
Celia Moore & Francesca Gino, Ethically Adrift: How Others Pull Our Moral Compass from True North and How We Can Fix It, Research in Organizational Behavior 33: 53 (2013).
Lamar Pierce & Jason Snyder, Ethical Spillovers in Firms: Evidence from Vehicle Emissions Testing, Management Science 54(11): 1891-1903 (2008).
Mattias Schwartz, Cassidy Hutchinson Googled “Watergrate” to Help Decide Whether to Cooperate with January 6 Committee, Business Insider, Dec. 22, 2022, at https://www.businessinsider.com/cassidy-hutchinson-googled-watergate-to-help-decide-whether-to-cooperate-with-january-6-committee-2022-12.
Bob Woodward, The Last of the President’s Men (2015).
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias
Moral Emotions: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-emotions
Self-Serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias
Related Blog Posts
“I Need a Hero: Why Others’ Good Deeds Make Us Better People”: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/i-need-a-hero-why-others-good-deeds-make-us-better-people