Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Moral Muteness

Moral muteness occurs when people witness unethical behavior and choose not to say anything. It can also occur when people communicate in ways that obscure their moral beliefs and commitments.

When we see others acting unethically, often the easiest thing to do is look the other way. Studies show that less than half of those who witness organizational wrongdoing report it. To speak out risks conflict, and we tend to avoid conflict because we pay an emotional and social cost for it.

For example, in one study, psychologist Harold Takooshian planted fur coats, cameras, and TVs inside 310 locked cars in New York City. He sent a team of volunteers to break into the cars and steal the valuables, asking the “thieves” to act in an obviously suspicious manner. About 3,500 people witnessed the break-ins, but only 9 people took any kind of action. Of those who spoke up, five were policemen.

Indeed, only a relatively small percentage of people who see wrongdoing speak up. But, if we wish to be ethical people, we must strive to combat moral muteness in all areas of our lives.

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In-group/Out-group

An in-group is a group of people who identify with each other based on a variety of factors including gender, race, religion, or geography. Our tendency to distinguish between in-group and out-group members has moral implications.

People may harm those whom they perceive to be in an out-group in ways that they would not harm in-group members. For example, one study showed that when soccer fans viewed fans of their own team being harmed, they felt empathy. But when they viewed fans of a rival team being similarly harmed, they felt pleasure.

Likewise, people tend to make different moral judgments based on in-group and out-group distinctions. When someone in our in-group misbehaves, the natural reaction is often to dismiss the behavior as no big deal. But when someone in our out-group does the same thing, we will tend to judge the behavior much more harshly.

Indeed, when automatic in-group and out-group distinctions replace conscious and thoughtful reflection, we are more likely to harm one another and behave unethically.

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Groupthink

Groupthink occurs when people’s desire to maintain group loyalty becomes more important than making the best choices. People often find it hard to think and act independently in group situations. According to psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”

Group members often suffer overconfidence and hold an unquestioned belief in the group’s competence and morality. Dissent by group members may be discouraged and even lead to expulsion from the group. Because people often want to avoid these punishments, they remain silent. This creates the illusion of agreement or unanimity in the group.

Groups may also reach decisions, including moral judgments, which are more extreme than any single member of the group originally supported. Unfortunately, if groupthink takes hold, group members may not even question ethically dubious decisions and actions. For example, some people say that the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq because of non-existent weapons of mass destruction was due to groupthink.

Indeed, groupthink can cause us to value harmony and consensus over independent judgment, and can lead to unethical behavior.

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Conformity Bias

The conformity bias is the tendency people have to behave like those around them rather than using their own personal judgment.

People seem to be more comfortable mimicking others, even regarding ethical matters.

For example, studies show that people are more likely to act in a prosocial manner, such as contributing to charity or conserving water, if they see or hear that others are doing it too. Knowing that those around us are making an ethical choice indicates it’s the social norm, and makes it easier for us to follow suit.

Unfortunately, the flip side is also true. As psychologist Dan Ariely notes, “Cheating is contagious. When we see others succeed by cheating, it makes us more likely to cheat as well.”

Indeed, the conformity bias can cause people to simply follow the herd rather than use their own independent ethical judgment.

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