Ethics Alarms Presents: The Top Ten Thought Fallacies That Undermine Our Ethics

Don't expect this list from Dave. ESPECIALLY not from Dave...

Today I’m teaching two ethics seminars for The Washington Non-Profit Tax Conference in D.C. One is on accounting ethics, the other is for lawyers. One segment in the accountants’ program involves the sub-conscious and genetically programmed human tendencies that can interfere with our better judgment and perceptions, warping our ethics, and causing our ethics alarms to sound faintly, if at all. There are a lot of them:  I have a list of more than thirty, and it’s growing. Here are my current Top Ten to be especially alert to, in your own thinking, and for understanding the behavior of others:
1. Reactivity: The tendency to act or appear differently when one knows one is being observed.

In the 1920s, a manufacturing company commissioned a study to see if different levels of light influenced worker productivity. Surprisingly, changing the light caused productivity to increase dramatically. But productivity levels decreased to their regular levels after the study. The finding: the change in productivity was not due to the light levels, but to the workers being watched. This demonstrated reactivity: when individuals know they are being watched, they are motivated to change their behavior, generally to make themselves look better in the eyes of those who are watching. This is one reason ethical oversight is important. Ethics may be what we do when nobody is looking, but almost everyone is more ethical when they are being watched.

2. Self-fulfilling Prophecy: engaging in behaviors that result in confirmation of existing attitudes.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to become true, because the individual unconsciously makes choices that guarantee the predicted result. It is one of the most difficult biases to combat.

3. The Halo Effect: the tendency for an individual’s powerful positive or negative traits to warp the perception of others regarding their contradictory characteristics.

Strongly related to the effects of cognitive dissonance, the Halo Effect is one reason why the powerful, famous, attractive and popular can corrupt others more easily than the rest of us. It is also the reason why “the politics of personal destruction” is so effective. Make some seem terrible enough, and nobody will listen to him even on matters where he (or she) may have unusual expertise and insight. This bias is most destructive when it results in trust being conferred on the untrustworthy.

4. Herd mentality: the tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority to feel safer and to avoid conflict.

Also known as mob psychology, peer pressure, and group-think.

5. The Orneriness Urge: the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to assert independence and control.

In our legitimate desire to protect autonomy, we may resist legitimate guidance to the detriment of our ethics. Herd mentality is one swing of the pendulum, reactance is the other.

6. Commitment Escalation: the tendency for people to continue to support previously unsuccessful endeavors because they have committed resources, time, and self-esteem in the result.

This leads to persisting in an unethical course, hoping that consequentialism will validate it.

7. Confirmation Bias: the  tendency to look for or interpret information in a way that confirms pre-formed beliefs.

The obvious problem with this bias is that it allows inaccurate information to be held as true. Our entire political system is warped by confirmation bias.

8. Restraint Bias: the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to show restraint in the face of temptation, or the perceived ability to have control over an impulse like hunger, greed, and sexual impulses.

In other words, temptation has more power over us than we are willing to admit.

9. Self-Serving Bias: when an individual attributes positive outcomes to internal factors and negative outcomes to external factors.

This warps one’s perception of experience, and leads to an ingrained resistance to personal accountability, as people assume credit for successes but refuse to accept responsibility for failures.  This is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.

10. Bias Blindness: the tendency not to acknowledge one’s own thought biases.

In a research study conducted by Emily Pronin of Princeton University, participants were told about different cognitive biases such as the Halo Effect and Self-Serving Bias. When subjects were asked how biased they themselves were, the group consistently rated themselves as less biased than the average person. This is why about 95% of the population rates itself as more ethical than average. The Better-Than-Average Bias is the tendency for people to inaccurately rate themselves as better than the average person on socially desirable skills or positive traits. They also rate themselves as lower than average on undesirable traits.

I know I do.

5 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Presents: The Top Ten Thought Fallacies That Undermine Our Ethics

  1. Very interesting list. I believe your self-serving bias tendency deserves further elaboration. As an ethics professor I am always disappointed when a list such as this does not include “the tendency to pursue one’s self-interest to the exclusion of others” because one’s internal drivers are ego, greed, power, and other negative characteristics. It’s nice to see you included it in the list to some extent. To elaborate on my views, each of us must examine the motives for our behavior and act on principle. Otherwise, circumstances more than individual choice could lead to unethical behavior, an ethical relativistic approach to ethical decision making that has been debunked for a long time. Self-serving behavior mitigates against examining one’ inner core values and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

  2. Re your No. 5, Orneriness: Grew up in an Irish-American Catholic household. (Still I-A but no longer C). In later years facetiously told people that our home parish was Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt.

    Also came up with my definition of Guilt: Guilt is a manipulative device used by parents, pastors, pedagogues and politicians to get us to do what THEY want instead of what WE want.

    A bit too facile, I admit. But while I still held it as an article of faith, it led me into some ORNERY (and destructive) life choices. I hope I can outgrow the hubris and develop more humility as I grow older.

  3. For the first 1, I like the example fromClerks:

    Dante: Theoretically, people see money on the counter and no one around, they think they’re being watched.
    Veronica: Honesty through paranoia.

    I don’t think I’ve heard the term “commitment escalation” before. I think of that as the sunk cost fallacy. This one shows up in sports constantly.

  4. Also for the 1st one, I would attribute this to your example of students who are primed with the Ten Commandments before taking an exam. In my experience, people believe everything is connected, so if they are primed with the 10C’s, they now think they are being watched.

    And you know what? They were.

  5. “Commitment Escalation” is a major one, Jack. I’ve often referred to it myself, though not in that term. I’d offer the opinion that this factor has become a dominating one indeed in current political affairs.

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