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In It To Win: Jack & Framing

Abramoff’s version of framing, which describes how our judgments, including our ethical judgments, are affected just by how a situation is posed or viewed.

Discussion Questions

1. Can you explain framing in your own words? How does it affect moral decision-making?

2. How does framing apply to Jack Abramoff? What examples from his story can you cite to support your argument?

3. Can you think of an example from your own life where you or someone else fell victim to framing?

4. How might you anticipate and/or mitigate the effects of framing in your own life or decision-making?

Abramoff: Lobbying Congress

Abramoff: Lobbying Congress

Super-lobbyist Abramoff was caught in a scheme to lobby against his own clients. Was a corrupt individual or a corrupt system – or both – to blame?


Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics concept of framing in the context of the story of former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff. During the Bush Administration, Abramoff was the most influential lobbyist in Washington, D.C. He was also at the center of one of the most significant political scandals since Watergate.

Framing describes how our responses to situations, including our ethical judgments, are impacted simply by how those situations may be posed or viewed. For example, people prompted to think of an issue as an ethical issue will tend to make more ethical decisions that people prompted to think of that same issue as a “business” issue. For more details and examples of this concept, watch Framing. To learn about framing effects caused by our own pre-existing points of view, watch Self-serving Bias. To understand how relative tangible and abstract components of a situation impact how we frame that issue, watch Tangible & Abstract.

 The kinds of decision-making errors that are the subject of Jack & Framing and the other five shorts in this video case are the focus of a field of study known as behavioral ethics, which draws upon psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do.

 This video draws from footage shot at The University of Texas at Austin when Abramoff visited campus to talk about his life and corrupt lobbying in Washington, D.C. It is part of a video case that includes a 25-minute documentary, In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story, six short videos that focus on specific behavioral ethics biases illustrated by Abramoff’s story, and a written case study. The documentary exposes personal and systemic ethical concerns in government and illustrates how well intentioned people can make serious ethical errors—and even commit crimes.

To learn more about the scandal that ended Abramoff’s lobbying career, read the case study on this page. For a case study on framing in business, read “Selling Enron,” which illustrates how the energy company Enron profited greatly from deceitful framing practices, but at a dire cost. For a case study that explores framing complex issues, read “Arctic Offshore Drilling,” which illustrates how competing groups have each framed the debate over expanded oil drilling off the coast of Alaska to align with their agendas.

Terms related to this short video and defined in our ethics glossary include: behavioral ethics, conflict of interest, framing, moral myopia, self-serving bias, and tangible & abstract.

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.

Books about the lobbying scandal include Jack Abramoff’s own account, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” (WND Books, 2011) and an exposé from journalist Peter H. Stone, “Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).

Movies about the scandal include a documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2010), and a dramatization starring Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack (Dir. George Hickenlooper, 2010).

Transcript of Narration

Framing (From the Concepts Unwrapped Series)

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Department of Business, Government and Society
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

““Framing” refers to the fact that people’s judgments, including their ethical judgments, are affected just by how a question is posed or viewed; for example, people prompted to think of an issue as an ethical issue will tend to make more ethical decisions that people prompted to think of that same issue as a “business” issue.

In any kind of decision-making, context counts. The simple reframing of a situation or question can produce a totally different answer from the same person.  For example, people would rather buy a hamburger made of meat labeled 75% fat free than meat labeled 25% fat. In fact, when questioned, these people will tell you that the 75% fat-free burger tastes better than the 25% fat burger, even though the burgers are identical.

When NASA was deciding whether to launch the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger, Morton Thiokol’s engineers at first opposed the launch on safety grounds.  But when their general manager instructed the engineers to “put on their management hats,” he reframed the decision from one focusing on safety to one focusing on dollars and cents.  The engineers then unfortunately changed their decision.

We need to look beyond the obvious frame of reference in business – “will this be a profitable decision?” – and consider our actions from a broader perspective like “how will this look when it’s reported on the front page of the newspaper?”

Decisions made by business people often occur in a context where subjective factors predominate, and the framing of an issue is particularly influential.  In Enron’s declining days, the company attempted to save money by encouraging employees to minimize travel expenses.  An Enron employee later wrote that he intentionally flouted the new policy.   While this seems like a clear ethical lapse, in the employee’s mind, he deserved to stay in the most expensive hotels and to eat at the best restaurants because of how very hard he was working.  He framed the issue in terms of his narrow self-serving interests, not in the broader ethical context of adhering to company policy.

CFOs and accounting personnel at Enron, HealthSouth, and other scandal-ridden companies didn’t need a philosophy course to help them figure out that their manipulation of financial statements was unethical.  Their problem was that at the time of their actions, their frame of reference was loyalty to the company and to the company’s goal of maximizing stock price.  Had those employees been able to think in terms of the bigger ethical picture – for example, the impact of their actions on other people’s pension funds – they might have acted differently.”