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.