Years ago, Stephen Covey commented, “Some say that ‘business is business’ and that ‘ethics and principles’ sometimes have to take a back seat to profits. Many of these same people see no correlation between the quality of their personal lives at home and the quality of their products and services at work.”
He may be more accurate in this statement than we originally thought possible.
A recent study in the Journal Nature, conducted by Alain Cohn and his colleagues at the University of Zurich, alludes to the same phenomena. The study talks about how we have multiple identities that depend on contexts. In different circumstances, a different identity may come forth and our behavior changes accordingly. Our ethics may well change depending on the situation.
The study uses a heads or tails competitive example with cash rewards going to the winner. In a regular heads or tails throw, the subjects call out their choice ahead of time. Unlike the usual game, in the control study the subjects involved indicated what their choice had been after the toss was revealed; which meant one could choose to cheat about what that choice had actually been.
In regular heads or tails, where the call is made in advance, there is a 50% chance of winning or losing. In the control study, higher than 50% success rates indicated the subject was likely cheating.
In this study, all 128 subjects worked for a large international bank. Prior to the game, the first study group filled out a questionnaire about their personal daily lives. When they participated in the toss, there was no evidence of cheating. That is, most of the results came in around 50%.
The second study group, with the same bank, was asked specific questions about their jobs at the bank before they did the tosses, which primed them to think of their professional, not personal, identities.
The subjects in this control group were 20% more likely to cheat on the toss call.
The authors also primed people in manufacturing and other fields to think about their professional identities, as well as priming non-bankers to think about banking and money. Yet cheating for the non-banker control groups did not increase.
Only the subjects at the bank – primed to think about their professional selves – showed an increase in cheating.
In addition, the priming for this control group “made the subjects more likely to endorse the statement: ‘Social status is primarily determined by financial success.’ The more strongly people endorsed the statement, the higher their rate of cheating.”
The article’s conclusion that people have multiple social identities is not new.
What I find interesting is how moral behavior may change “according to which identity,” personal or professional, may be on someone’s mind. Might this explain why some people who are normally honest, gracious, polite, truth tellers at home act differently in different situations?
[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@RichardMBowen”]How does moral behavior change according to the identity that is on someone’s mind? #ethics[/tweetthis]
The last several weeks have brought this issue home with some major public players experiencing extreme embarrassment and professional jeopardy due to their bad choices.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used her personal email for state business, a move that interferes with the Freedom of Information Act and makes it more difficult for the public’s right to know. And, has everyone forgotten about her supposed 2008 landing under sniper fire in Bosnia? The actual video footage shows a peaceful landing with flowers begin given to her by a young schoolgirl. This would not have happened if there had been real sniper fire.
And, how can we ever again respect NBC anchor and managing editor Brian Williams with his flagrant coloring of the Iraqi helicopter incident? This incident – and the way he explained his “misrembering” – has left him an Internet laughing stock as well as suspended from his prominent and highly respected media position.
And Bill O’Reilly’s war stories may instead be tall tales rather than factual reporting. Fellow CBS correspondent Charles Krause described some of O’Reilly’s assertions about their experiences in Argentina”absurd.”
O’Reilly’s explanation of Brian Williams’ exaggerations is even more more disturbing. On February 5, 2015, O’Reilly justified Williams’ exaggerations: “You go on Letterman…You want to be interesting. You want to be fascinating. You want to be cool…He knows what he did was wrong. A lot of people exaggerate their life experience, and he got caught…. I don’t think Americans care anymore. I think they’re so used to being lied to, they’re so cynical about the media, they don’t trust the media at all.”
The list goes on.
From highly placed civic leaders to bankers, have ethics become less a set way we govern ourselves at all times, to how we govern ourselves in, shall we say, a flip of the coin and the stakes that depend on that toss?