Nameless + Harmless = Blameless: When Seemingly Irrelevant Factors Influence Judgment of (Un)ethical Behavior

by Francesca Gino, Lisa L. Shu & Max H. Bazerman

Overview — Most of us regularly make ethical judgments about others' behavior and make decisions regarding whether or not to punish others' unethical behavior. Although many of us know how we would rationally like to behave in these situations, little prior research has explored the systematic errors we commit in the process of evaluating others' unethical behavior and acting upon it. The present research by Gino, Shu, and Bazerman focuses on the effects of both the outcome of unethical acts and the identifiability of the victim of wrongdoing on ethical judgments and decisions to punish unethical behavior. Key concepts include:

  • The decision to withhold or disclose information about the victims and outcomes of a behavior can be a powerful determinant of the ethical perception of that behavior.
  • Decision-makers should anticipate being judged less for the ethics of their actions than for the consequences of those actions and the identifiability of the victim of their wrongdoing.
  • No matter how ethical the decisions of a manager or a company may be, judges (such as customers, citizens, or employees) might punish the manager or company if things go wrong or if the victims are clearly identified.

Author Abstract

People often make judgments about the ethicality of others' behaviors and then decide how harshly to punish such behaviors. When they make these judgments and decisions, sometimes the victims of the unethical behavior are identifiable, and sometimes they are not. In addition, in our uncertain world, sometimes an unethical action causes harm, and sometimes it does not. We argue that a rational assessment of ethicality should not depend on the identifiability of the victim of wrongdoing or the actual harm caused. Yet in four laboratory studies, we show that these factors have a systematic effect on how people judge the ethicality of the perpetrator of an unethical action. Specifically, we find that identifiability of the victim of wrongdoing and information about the outcome of wrongdoing influence both ethical judgments and decisions to punish wrongdoers. Our studies show that people judge behavior as more unethical when (1) identifiable versus statistical victims are involved and (2) the behavior leads to a negative rather than a positive outcome. We also find that people's willingness to punish wrongdoers is consistent with their judgments, and we offer preliminary evidence on how to reduce these biases.

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