Enron, Worldcom, Bernie Madoff, the subprime mortgage crisis.
Over the past decade or so, news stories about unethical behavior have been a regular feature on TV, a long, discouraging parade of misdeeds marching across our screens. And in the face of these scandals, psychologists and economists have been slowly reworking how they think about the cause of unethical behavior.
In general, when we think about bad behavior, we think about it being tied to character: Bad people do bad things. But that model, researchers say, is profoundly inadequate.
What causes unethical behavior? — has been getting a fair amount of attention from researchers recently, particularly those interested in how our brains process information when we make decisions.
And what these these researchers have concluded is that most of us are capable of behaving in profoundly unethical ways. And not only are we capable of it — without realizing it, we do it all the time.
Over the past couple of decades, psychologists have documented many different ways that our minds fail to see what is directly in front of us. They've come up with a concept called "bounded ethicality": That's the notion that cognitively, our ability to behave ethically is seriously limited, because we don't always see the ethical big picture.
One small example: the way a decision is framed. "The way that a decision is presented to me," says Ann Tenbrunsel, a researcher at Notre Dame, "very much changes the way in which I view that decision, and then eventually, the decision it is that I reach."
Essentially, Tenbrunsel argues, certain cognitive frames make us blind to the fact that we are confronting an ethical problem at all.
Tenbrunsel told us about a recent experiment that illustrates the problem. She got together two groups of people and told one to think about a business decision. The other group was instructed to think about an ethical decision. Those asked to consider a business decision generated one mental checklist; those asked to think of an ethical decision generated a different mental checklist.
Tenbrunsel next had her subjects do an unrelated task to distract them. Then she presented them with an opportunity to cheat.
Those cognitively primed to think about business behaved radically different from those who were not — no matter who they were, or what their moral upbringing had been.
"If you're thinking about a business decision, you are significantly more likely to lie than if you were thinking from an ethical frame," Tenbrunsel says.
According to Tenbrunsel, the business frame cognitively activates one set of goals — to be competent, to be successful; the ethics frame triggers other goals. And once you're in, say, a business frame, you become really focused on meeting those goals, and other goals can completely fade from view.
Now if these psychologists and economists are right, if we are all capable of behaving profoundly unethically without realizing it, then our workplaces and regulations are poorly organized. They're not designed to take into account the cognitively flawed human beings that we are. They don't attempt to structure things around our weaknesses.
Some concrete proposals to do that are on the table. For example, we know that auditors develop relationships with clients after years of working together, and we know that those relationships can corrupt their audits without them even realizing it. So there is a proposal to force businesses to switch auditors every couple of years to address that problem.
Another suggestion: A sentence should be placed at the beginning of every business contract that explicitly says that lying on this contract is unethical and illegal, because that kind of statement would get people into the proper cognitive frame.
And there are other proposals, of course.
Or, we could just keep saying what we've always said — that right is right, and wrong is wrong, and people should know the difference.