Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Overconfidence Bias

The overconfidence bias is the tendency people have to be more confident in their own abilities, such as driving, teaching, or spelling, than is objectively reasonable. This overconfidence also involves matters of character.

Generally, people believe that they are more ethical than their competitors, co-workers, and peers. For example, a recent study showed that 50% of business people polled believed that they were in the top 10% ethically.

Because of the overconfidence bias, people will often take ethical issues lightly. They simply assume that they have good character and will therefore do the right thing when they encounter ethical challenges. In fact, studies show that the overconfidence bias causes people to overestimate how much, and how often, they will donate money or volunteer their time to charities.

So, overconfidence in our own moral character can cause us to act without proper reflection. And that is when we are most likely to act unethically.

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Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency people have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behavior. Because of the fundamental attribution error, we tend to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people. We’re inclined to ignore situational factors that might have played a role.

For example, if someone cuts us off while driving, our first thought might be “What a jerk!” instead of considering the possibility that the driver is rushing someone to the airport. On the flip side, when we cut someone off in traffic, we tend to convince ourselves that we had to do so.  We focus on situational factors, like being late to a meeting, and ignore what our behavior might say about our own character.

For example, in one study when something bad happened to someone else, subjects blamed that person’s behavior or personality 65% of the time. But, when something bad happened to the subjects, they blamed themselves only 44% of the time, blaming the situation they were in much more often.

So, the fundamental attribution error explains why we often judge others harshly while letting ourselves off the hook at the same time by rationalizing our own unethical behavior.

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