Morality Rebooted: Exploring Simple Fixes to Our Moral Bugs

by Ting Zhang, Francesca Gino & Max H. Bazerman

Executive Summary — Although scholars know far more now than they used to about the conditions under which individuals are likely to behave, current understandings are still primarily descriptive. This paper responds to the challenge of advancing knowledge of unethical behavior from largely descriptive research to a framework aimed to reduce or even eliminate unethical behavior in organizations. The goal is twofold: First, the authors identify approaches to mitigating unethical behavior based on empirical evidence from existing research in moral psychology and behavioral ethics. Second, they develop a framework for evaluating different strategies with prescriptive recommendations on how to reduce unethical behaviors. Overall they find that ethical fixes emerge in two broad categories: values-oriented and structure-oriented approaches. Values-oriented approaches shift people's preferences to be moral, whereas structure-oriented approaches seek to design incentives, decisions, and tasks such that the unethical option is less tempting. Based on theory and empirical findings, the authors propose that adopting both values-oriented and structure-oriented approaches mitigates the risk of adverse effects from one strategy taken from a single approach. Key concepts include:

  • This paper discusses the power of subtle changes and shows how they can point our moral compass toward a more ethical direction.
  • The distinction the authors draw between values-oriented and structure-oriented approaches demonstrates that there is no one right approach to reduce unethical behavior in organizations and society more broadly.
  • The prescriptions based on ethics research discussed here are grounded in economic and psychological models of unethical behavior.

Author Abstract

Ethics research developed partly in response to calls from organizations to understand and solve unethical behavior. Departing from prior work that has mainly focused on examining the antecedents and consequences of dishonesty, we examine two approaches to mitigating unethical behavior: (1) values-oriented approaches that broadly appeal to individuals' preferences to be more moral and (2) structure-oriented approaches that redesign specific incentives, tasks, and decisions to reduce temptations to cheat in the environment. This paper explores how these approaches can change behavior. We argue that integrating both approaches while avoiding incompatible strategies can reduce the risk of adverse effects that arise from taking a single approach.

Paper Information