Can COVID-19 Help Us Be More Ethical?

There is so much bad news caused by the pandemic these days—infections, deaths, depression (mental and economic)—that many of us find ourselves hunting for every little bit of good news.  In a recent blog post, attorney Jeffrey Kaplan found a silver lining in all our quarantining and social distancing by suggesting that working from home might make people more ethical.

Referring to a study by economist Johannes Abeler and colleagues–finding that people, if given an opportunity to profit by cheating, were less likely to do so if they were in their own home than if they were in a laboratory–Kaplan suggested that all this working at home might increase our honesty. If it did, this would be a tiny bright spot in a sea of dismal COVID-19 news.  We write this blog post to add evidence to support Kaplan’s conclusion and to provide a theory as to why honesty might well increase.

Kaplan emphasizes the well-known point that context matters, that a person might well be honest in one setting, but dishonest in another.  Psychologist Adam Alter wrote an entire book summarizing scores of studies demonstrating this point, and concluded:

These studies tell us something profound and perhaps a bit disturbing about what makes us who we are: there isn’t a single version of ‘you.’  When you’re surrounded by litter, you’re more likely to be a litterbug; when you’re walking past building with broken windows, you’re more likely to disrespect the property that surrounds you. These norms change from minute to minute, as quickly as a New Yorker walks from one part of the city to another.

There are many reasons why a person might be more honest at home than at the office, and we at Ethics Unwrapped have made videos about several of them.  At work, your boss might ask you to do something dishonest, and your tendency to be obedient to authority might push you to comply. Or the culture in your office might be to play fast and loose with the rules, and the conformity bias might lead you to join in the corner-cutting.

But we want to focus on role morality, the idea that we all play different roles as we go through life.  Sixteen hours a day, we might simultaneously be parents, children, siblings, neighbors, citizens, church-goers, community volunteers, and the like, but eight hours a day we might focus on being loyal workers for our employer. While we should have a personal moral compass that we carry with us at all times, evidence shows that sometimes, due to obedience to authority, the conformity bias, and other pressures, we sometimes leave our personal moral compass in our pocket when we are at work and apply that of the boss or our firm’s corporate culture.

Sociologist Robert Jackall embedded himself in a large corporation for more than a year in order to study its culture and practices. He reported that one executive said: “What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church.  What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That’s what morality is in the corporation.”

Psychologist Keith Leavitt has made the same point: “When people switch hats, they often switch moral compasses. People like to think they are inherently moral creatures – you either have character or you don’t. But our studies show that the same person may make a completely different decision based on what hat they may be wearing at the time, often without even realizing it.”

People often engage in wrongdoing when playing roles such as loyal employee, aggressive sales representative, successful securities trader, or profit-producing manager. After interviewing a number of C-suite executives who had gone to jail for financial crimes, Suh and colleagues reported:  “Executives’ identification with their organizational role, the desire to be successful or to help the company succeed, and even pride served to induce the executives to engage in accounting fraud in order to meet corporate financial targets.”

People are more likely to use their own moral compass when they are at home focusing on their roles of parent, spouse, and citizen. When Cohn and colleagues contacted Swiss bankers, asked them about their television watching habits, and then incentivized them to cheat in a situation where they could not be caught, almost none cheated.  But when they contacted other bankers and reminded them of their occupations before giving them the same opportunity to cheat, a substantial percentage acted dishonestly.  According to the psychologists: “Here we show that employees of a large, international bank behave, on average, honestly in a control condition. However, when their professional identity as bank employees is rendered salient, a significant proportion of them become dishonest.”

Thus, there is evidence that if we think of ourselves in our personal roles rather than our commercial roles, we might well act more honestly.  That would be a good thing.

On the other hand, a couple of studies are a thin reed upon which to hang such a prediction (especially because the Cohn study did not replicate when subjects were bankers in the Middle East and Asia (Rahwan et al.)), so we at Ethics Unwrapped are not confident that on average there will be a big effect of this nature across the country. Furthermore, it is one thing to be contacted at home while going about your daily life (as in the Abeler study), but it is quite another to be working at home where it might be much more difficult to shed one’s business identity.

However, consider this.  If, while working at home, you are also wrestling with your children or pets, you might act more honestly because people generally want to be role models for their children, and studies indicate that “[o]verall, parents rarely cheat when their child is present.” (Houser et al.)  Moreover, people do not wish to be jerks in the presence of their children, or even their pets, so prosocial behavior tends to increase in the presence of kids and dogs. (Economist)

Whatever the average impact on people across the country, you, dear reader, can carefully consider your vulnerability to role morality, obedience to authority, and the conformity bias and resolve to act more ethically, whether you are working at home or at the office. You can promise yourself that you are going to live by your moral code wherever you happen to find yourself and whatever hat you happen to be wearing.

 

Sources

Johannes Abeler et al., “Truth Telling: A Representative Assessment,” at http://ftp.iza.org/dp6919.pdf.

Adam Alter, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave (2013).

Alain Cohn, Ernst Fehr & Michel Andre Marechal, “Business Culture and Dishonesty in the Banking Industry,” Nature, Dec. 4, 2014.

Daniel Houser et al., “On the Origins of Dishonesty: From Parents to Children,” NBER Working Paper 20897 (2015), at https://www.nber.org/papers/w20897.

Oregon State University, “Wearing Two Different Hats: Moral Decisions May Depend on the Situation,” May 23, 2012 (interviewing Keith Leavitt), at https://today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2012/may/wearing-two-different-hats-moral-decisions-may-depend-situation.

Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes (1988).

Jeffrey Kaplan, “Will Working at Home Make Us More Ethical?” at https://www.ethicalsystems.org/will-working-at-home-make-us-more-ethical/.

“Manager’s Best Friend; Animal and Human Behaviour,” The Economist, Aug. 14, 2010.

Zoe Rahwan et al., “Heterogeneity in Banker Culture and Its Influence on Dishonesty,” Nature, Nov. 13, 2019.

Ikseon Suh et al., “Boiling the Frog Slowly: The Immersion of C-Suite Financial Executives into Fraud,” Journal of Business Ethics (July 27, 2018).

 

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