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Conflict of Interest

Conflict of interest arises when we have incentives that conflict with our professional duties and responsibilities in ways that harm others and society.

Discussion Questions

1. What conflicts of interest have you personally experienced in personal or professional roles?

2. If you perceive a potential conflict for yourself, what are some ways you might ensure that this conflict doesn’t lead to unethical behavior for you and others?

3. When have others’ conflicts of interest impacted how you or those you know were treated?

4. What types of policies can or do organizations implement to try to reduce conflicts of interest or their costs?

5. Why do you believe conflicts of interest are so pervasive in society? Why don’t we take more steps to avoid them?

6. Why is it so hard for individuals to recognize their own conflicts of interest, and how is this impacted by behavioral biases?

Cheney v. U.S. District Court

Cheney v. U.S. District Court

A controversial case focuses on Justice Scalia’s personal friendship with Vice President Cheney and the possible conflict of interest it poses to the case.


Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as conflict of interest. A conflict of interest arises when we have incentives and responsibilities in our personal and professional lives that are at odds and cause harm to others and to society. Conflicts of interest can appear in a variety of contexts and for many different reasons. For example, we may fail to see the ethical dimensions of a decision depending on the “role” we’re playing at work or in our broader lives. Or, the way in which we “frame” a situation may omit or obscure a conflict of interest. Or, a potential conflict of interest can lead us to develop incentives that “game the system.”

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts, watch Ethical Fading, Framing, Incentive Gaming, and Role Morality.

The case studies on this page explore the legal and ethical ramifications of conflict of interest in politics and sports media. “Cheney v. U.S. District Court” illustrates a controversial court case where Justice Scalia’s personal friendship with Vice President Cheney presents a possible conflict of interest. “Covering Yourself? Journalists and the Bowl Championship Series” examines whether news outlets covering a Bowl Championship Series can fairly report sports news if their own polls are used to create the news. “Negotiating Bankruptcy” presents a case study focusing on conflict of interest in a business context.

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: behavioral ethics, bounded ethicality, conformity bias, moral emotions, moral equilibrium, moral reasoning, and obedience to authority.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

The latest resource from Ethics Unwrapped is a book, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice. This accessible book is amply footnoted with behavioral ethics studies and associated research. It also includes suggestions at the end of each chapter for related Ethics Unwrapped videos and case studies. Some instructors use this resource to educate themselves, while others use it in lieu of (or in addition to) a textbook.

Cara Biasucci also recently wrote a chapter on integrating Ethics Unwrapped in higher education, which can be found in the latest edition of Teaching Ethics: Instructional Models, Methods and Modalities for University Studies. The chapter includes examples of how Ethics Unwrapped is used at various universities.

The most recent article written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice describes the basics of behavioral ethics and introduces Ethics Unwrapped videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples. It also includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. Published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), it can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

An article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduce key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. Published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, it can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

A detailed article written by Robert Prentice, with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, was published in Journal of Legal Studies Education and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”

Another article by Robert Prentice, discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, was published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy. It can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?

A dated (but still serviceable) introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Lamar Pierce, Ph.D., M.S.
Department of Organization and Strategy
Olin Business School
Washington University in St. Louis

“Incentives are pervasive in every aspect of society. People are rewarded for taking certain actions, and not rewarded for taking others. Workers are paid for their effort and productivity, salespeople are paid for their sales, and small business owners are rewarded with profits for successful ventures. So long as these incentives are well understood by everyone, they work reasonably well. They motivate effort, performance, and social welfare. But sometimes, individuals have incentives that conflict with their professional responsibilities, often in ways that are not transparent to the public or even in their own mind. These conflicts of interest produce serious economic and social problems.

Conflicts of interest are pervasive in markets and in society, and can motivate professionals to act in ways that violate their responsibilities and hurt their clients and employers. Doctors, for example, may face a conflict of interest when they are paid more for some procedures than for others. Their professional responsibility is to do what is best for the patient, but their financial incentive is not always aligned with this responsibility. If an oncologist profits from selling chemotherapy agents to their patients, and some agents are more expensive than others, this conflict becomes a problem. Most doctors would never think of profiting in ways that hurt their patients, but some may either consciously or subconsciously.

When there are conflicts of interest, you can almost guarantee that they will sometimes lead to bad outcomes. Surprisingly, in many states, real estate agents can represent both the buyer and the seller in a home transaction. The conflict in such transactions is clear. The agent could never have both parties’ best interests in mind, just as an attorney could never adequately represent both a plaintiff and defendant in civil lawsuit. Even professors face a conflict of interest when they are designing courses that will be evaluated by students seeking high grades and low workload. If the professor is ultimately promoted based on their popularity with students, will they consider making the course a little easier?

The key implication is that managers and policy-makers must constantly evaluate whether professionals and employees might face incentives to act counter to their responsibility. Eliminating conflicts of interest is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce unethical behavior. But in order to do so, we must be willing to acknowledge that professional codes of conduct, like those followed by doctors, lawyers, accountants, and real estate agents, do not make people immune to these conflicts, and that these codes are rarely a justification for ignoring the likely outcomes that conflicts of interest create.”


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Brawley, Otis Webb, and Paul Goldberg. 2011. How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks about being Sick in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

De Cremer, David (Editor). 2009. Psychological Perspectives on Ethical Behavior and Decision Making. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

McFadden, David W., Elizabeth Calvario, and Cynthis Graves. 2007. “The Devil Is in the Details: The Pharmaceutical Industry’s Use of Gifts to Physicians as Marketing Strategy.” Journal of Surgical Research 140 (1): 1-5.

Moore, Don A., Daylian M. Cain, George Loewenstein, and Max H. Bazerman (Editors). 2005. Conflicts of Interest: Challenges and Solutions in Business, Law, Medicine, and Public Policy. New York: Cambridge University Press.