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Brian Gunia, a Ph.D. student in management and organizations

Tipping the scales toward truth

Conversation and contemplation lead to more ethical decisions, a new Kellogg study finds

By Amy Trang

5/17/2011 - Recent corporate scandals at Goldman Sachs and Siemens epitomize the fact that the obvious, morally correct route is not always the one chosen.

But subtle acts, like contemplating or conversing before a moral decision, can increase a person’s propensity to tell the truth or make the right decision, according to a new study from the Kellogg School.

“Contemplation and Conversation: Subtle Influences on Moral Decision Making” explores the psychological processes that lead people to make right vs. wrong decisions. The study finds that the odds of people telling the truth in a moral dilemma are 4.5 times higher if the decision-maker spends time thinking or having a conversation about his or her choice.

“People are tempted all the time in organizations, and this study shows that it doesn’t take much to tip them one way or another,” study co-author Keith Murnighan said. “That’s a scary thought.”
“People are tempted all the time in organizations, and this study shows that it doesn’t take much to tip them one way or another,” study co-author Keith Murnighan said. “That’s a scary thought.”
Photo by Jockey Cheung
“People are often sitting on the fence of ‘should I or shouldn’t I do this?’ when they make ethical decisions,” said co-author Keith Murnighan, the Harold H. Hines Jr. Professor of Risk Management. “People are tempted all the time in organizations, and this study shows that it doesn’t take much to tip them one way or another. That’s a scary thought.”

Although people have a good sense of what is right or wrong, right-wrong decisions remain difficult because doing the wrong thing can be incredibly tempting, said co-author Brian Gunia, a Ph.D. student in management and organizations at the Kellogg School.

In the experiment, participants could either tell the truth to another participant and decrease their own payoff or lie in an attempt to increase their payoff. Participants were placed into one of three different conditions under which they performed one of the following actions:

  1. Contemplated their decision for three minutes before making it
  2. Made their decision immediately, or
  3. Exchanged an email with an anonymous stranger who was making the same decision. The email was exchanged with a peer who said that he or she was going to act honestly or self-interestedly.
Overall, 84 percent of the people who contemplated or had a conversation with someone who planned to be honest also told the truth. In contrast, only 53 percent of the people who chose immediately or had a conversation with someone who planned to act self-interestedly told the truth.

“A very simple instruction to think about the decision for three minutes had a potent effect on truth-telling,” Gunia said. “The same was true for email conversations. One email from an anonymous, unseen stranger had an equally dramatic impact on people’s moral behavior.”

When participants were asked to explain their decisions, the study found that truth-tellers indicated that the situation was a matter of morality, while liars described the situation as a matter of self-interest.

“Contemplation and moral conversations seem to provide alternate routes to ethicality, while immediate choice and self-interested conversations seem to provide detours around ethicality,” Gunia said.

The authors say that organizations can help facilitate their employees’ moral decision-making by making it clear that the company promotes honesty — even through a simple tactic such as the posting of “moral reminder” signs. Organizations can also create internal structures that require a discussion or a “contemplation” period before consequential decisions.

The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal. Other authors include Long WangLi Huang and Jiunwen Wang, all of the Kellogg School.