Podcast: ethics frameworks should recognise almost nobody is good all the time

By Stephen Easton

January 25, 2019

If you like to think you’re a good person but also have a feeling there’s a personal cost to being 100% ethical all of the time, you’re not alone.

Research shows few among us are above a little cheating, especially if the opportunity arises and we’re unlikely to get caught, but most refrain from taking every chance to help themselves by doing something naughty.

“People balance this,” explains social psychologist Daniel Effron in a new podcast from the federal government’s behavioural economics team. It’s mostly the need “to feel like reasonable human beings” that’s holding them back.

When people know they have a series of opportunities to cheat, the last chance is hardest to resist, according to some of Effron’s recent work, which he presented at last year’s Behavioural Exchange conference in Sydney, where the interview was recorded.

“It’s not that they think they are less likely to get caught at the end, it’s that people don’t like passing up last chances,” he explains.

Referring to influential social and organisational psychologist Kurt Lewin, Effron says psychological “barriers” of some kind are often a major factor in people not doing something they are supposed to do; it’s usually not because they “don’t care” about doing the right thing. And conversely, he points out, frameworks that aim to ensure integrity and ethics should create barriers that make people pause and think before doing the wrong thing.

Broadly, one way to apply this in an organisation, or to improve regulatory compliance, is to make it as simple and easy as possible to do the right thing. Less people will do the wrong thing if it takes a series of very deliberate steps.

Much of Effron’s work concerns how people justify doing things which, on another level, they know are morally or ethically dubious, and situations where people do bad things without even realising it.

One of his early interests was moral licensing — where “sometimes doing good things can make people feel like they have a pass to do bad things” — mostly in the context of racism and discrimination.

“So if people feel like they’ve established their non-racist credentials by doing something egalitarian, they subsequently feel like they can express views or take actions that favour one group at the expense of another group, actions that could seem prejudiced.”

One piece of early research tested the hypothesis that American voters might feel more comfortable expressing “views that favour white people at the expense of black people” if they had voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, and found evidence this was the case.

Effron is now interested in ways to curb the spread of misinformation. He suspects a lot of people help spread “fake news” despite knowing it is fake, and is currently looking at whether they consider the ethics of doing so.

Some of these experiments have led to more effective ways to encourage honesty and ethical behaviour in organisations, he adds, but says there’s a lot more research in the field that could be applied.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals