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What Were They Thinking?

November 10, 2011

Every time there is a new ethics scandal, whether in a university or some other setting (such as in government or the corporate world), observers wonder how those involved could have been so stupid. Could they really have done the things of which they are accused? If so, what were they thinking?

In fact, there are three precipitating factors for ethics scandals that practically guarantee that they will not be going away anytime soon. The three factors are foolishness, the complexity of ethical reasoning, and ethical drift, which I discuss in turn.

The first factor promoting ethics scandals is that, contrary to their self-belief, smart people are especially susceptible to acting foolishly.  Your biggest risk factor for foolish behavior is the belief that, while other people often act in foolish ways, you never would do so. Smart people are often those most likely to harbor such a belief. In a book I edited entitled Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (Yale University Press, 2002), I argued that smart people, and especially smart leaders -- including academic administrators -- are particularly susceptible to fallacies in thinking that promote foolish behavior.

The first fallacy is unrealistic optimism, whereby one believes oneself to be so smart that any idea one has must be good. The second is egocentrism, whereby one’s leadership becomes about one’s own self-enhancement. The third fallacy is unrealistic omniscience, whereby one comes to believe one knows pretty much everything there is to know. The fourth is unrealistic omnipotence, whereby one comes to believe oneself to have pretty much unlimited power. The fifth is unrealistic invulnerability, whereby one starts to view oneself, like Superman, to be invincible. The sixth fallacy is the sunk-cost fallacy, whereby one begins to feel so much investment of time, effort, and, usually, money in a chosen path, even though one comes to realize that it is a mistaken path, that one continues down it rather than admitting publicly to a mistake, correcting the mistake, and starting down a better path. And the last fallacy is ethical disengagement, whereby one comes to believe ethics to be extremely important — for other people. If you think about failed leaders, you are likely to find them to be committing several and possibly all of these fallacies.

The second factor promoting ethics scandals is the rather complex set of processes involved in ethical reasoning. We are brought up to believe that ethical reasoning is quite simple: Just do the right thing.  I have, myself, said, “Do the right thing” to the people working with me — first as a scientist, and now as a university administrator. But doing the right thing is harder than it appears.
 

Read Our News Coverage on Penn State
Penn State's board fires its president
and renowned football coach. And
the U.S. Education Department
plans an inquiry.

 

In an article I wrote in Liberal Education,  I argued that ethical reasoning actually requires eight steps. Unless you complete them all, you most likely will not act in an ethical manner. In other words, acting ethically is much more complex than it first appears.

First, you have to recognize that there is even a situation to which to respond. People who are unethical try to hide their unethical actions or to use the power of their position to assure people that someone in their position, and especially they, would only ever act in ways beyond reproach.

Second, you have to define the situation as having an ethical dimension. When people act unethically, they may try to redefine their behavior as merely a business decision, or as a personal idiosyncrasy, or as a cost of doing business. They can assure you that they are "ethical people," and it is easier to believe them than to take the risk of questioning them.

Third, you need to decide that the situation is personally relevant to you. Who wants to get involved in someone else's ethical mess? You can tell yourself that it is someone else's problem, not yours! Or maybe you can make it someone else’s problem so you can stay out of it.  People have many ways to deflect the responsibility onto others, even in ethical morasses as horrible as genocides.

Fourth, you need to judge that the ethical gravity of the situation is sufficient that a response is necessary. People often find ways to minimize the ethical gravity of a situation so that they won’t have to deal with that unpleasant situation. Perhaps the behavior really was not so bad after all, or is being blown up by the press or by people of ill will.  You may tell yourself that you can’t respond to every ethical minor transgression: After all, who cares if someone goes one mile per hour over the speed limit?

Fifth, you need to decide what ethical rule is relevant to the situation at hand. Sometimes you see a behavior that appears to be unethical, but you are not sure exactly why and hence are not sure what, if anything, is wrong with it, or what to do about it.

Sixth, even if you can figure out what ethical rule applies, you still have to figure out how to apply it. As we all know, it is easier to learn rules in a domain than actually to apply them. This is true in learning a language, learning to drive, or learning statistics.  It is especially true in the ethical domain, where the proper application of rules is particularly sticky.

Seventh, if you choose to act in a way you view as ethical, you need to prepare yourself for possible repercussions, some of which may be serious. Acting ethically may cause you to lose friends or your job.  It may expose you to ridicule. It may even be viewed as disloyal to your organization. Whistle-blowers, for example, often end up jobless and friendless.

Finally, even if you get through the preceding seven steps, you still need to do the eighth — act. People often figure out what they should do and then simply fail to do it. Even the best-educated people often simply fail to translate thought into action.

The third factor behind ethics scandals is what I refer to in an article in press in Liberal Education as ethical drift. Ethical drift occurs when you are in an environment where the ethical standards are not what they ideally should be. As time goes on and you acclimate more and more to that environment and even become a part of it, your ethical standards may drift downward without your even realizing it. You become like the people around you without sensing that you are changing. Actions that at one time might have seemed clearly unethical may now seem more ambiguous or at least open to multiple interpretations.

When one looks at recent happenings at Penn State, or at certain events that have come to light at the University of Miami, one may wonder how seemingly smart people could have dug themselves into such deep holes. Of course, college administrators are in no way unique: political candidacies, even of candidates for the U.S. presidency, have imploded over ethical scandals one never could have imagined that seasoned politicians would have gotten themselves into. The scandals then become worse when the cover-up starts, and then the cover-up of the cover-up. (A lawyer acquaintance who specializes in white-collar crime once told me that he had never had a client go to prison for his original sin, but had seen several of them go to prison for the cover-up and perjury that ensued.) We all need to realize that we could find ourselves in similar positions if we are not diligent and reflective.

The greatest enemy of ethical behavior is rationalization — rationalizations that ethics are important for other people but not so much for us; or that, if we have not lived up to our ethical ideals, neither have others, and hence, so what; or that a situation that clearly is an ethical one really ought to be seen in some other light or be viewed as someone else’s problem; or that we know we are ethical people so we must be doing the right thing.  When an ethically-based problem arises, waiting is the last thing you want to do.  It’s not too late to do the right thing — until it’s too late and you have brought down not only your own reputation, but that of your institution as well.

Bio

Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, and Regents Professor of Psychology and Education at Oklahoma State University, as well as treasurer of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, past president of the American Psychological Association and president-elect of the Federation of Associations of Brain and Behavioral Sciences.

 

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