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The Lawyer Who Wants to Transform Legal Ethics with Behavioral Science

Tigran Eldred started his career as an appellate lawyer, working on behalf of criminal defendants who had been convicted of serious offenses. This often meant he needed to investigate whether his clients had received adequate representation by their trial attorneys. Too often, though, when he would question a trial lawyer about why certain decisions were—or were not—made before or during the trial, the lawyer would become very defensive. Some lawyers would not even be willing to speak to him. This astounded him, as these are lawyers whose job it had been to zealously represent the interests of his clients. Frustrated, Eldred started to explore some of the psychological research that might explain why someone might place self-interest over the duties owed to their clients. The result was his first paper, which explored the psychology of conflicts of interest in criminal cases. Eldred has been interested in, and developed a greater understanding of the psychological dimensions of, ethical decision-making ever since.

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Is Creative Talent Critical to Ethical Systems Design?

In March, Ethical Systems hosted its second “Ethics by Design” conference. It showcased not just the expertise of top behavioral-science researchers and business practitioners, but also the challenges—both empirical and managerial—that they face in redesigning organizations to function more ethically. As social psychologist Jon Haidt, the Founding Director of Ethical Systems, said in his closing remarks, “At the end of the day, I have a much greater appreciation of just how hard it is to make good systems.” The trouble, of course, is the human being. Since our behavior can be hard to understand and predict, psychological knowledge, Haidt said, is crucial: “Any system that’s designed that doesn’t take human nature into account—a really deep understanding of human nature—is likely to become a monstrous system.”

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Mirage or Vision? Four Blind Spots at the Core of Theranos’ Failure

The parable of Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos, is not an unfamiliar one. It involves a dream, a mission, a plan, a vision and quite possibly monumental corruption. It’s unclear whether Theranos’ rise and fall will turn out to be a dazzling mirage of “would-be” business greatness, one of the most infamous stories of corporate fraud in the 21st century, or, an ironic reminder of the inescapable weakness of biased decision-making. What we know for certain is that behind this particular corporate failure lies a cautionary tale of boundless visioning that all investors, entrepreneurs and organizations seeking breakthrough innovations should be interested in further understanding.

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Miss the 2019 Ethics by Design Conference? Watch It Online

Jon Haidt, in his closing remarks during our second Ethics by Design conference, wanted to share his overall takeaway, encapsulating a day’s worth of ideas on managing organizations in an era of anxiety, polarization, and disruption. “We’re always talking about the importance of systems—ethical systems, designing systems. At the end of the day, I have a much greater appreciation of just how hard it is to make good systems,” the Founding Director of Ethical Systems said. He noted that lots of people help make systems, in engineering and economics, but you wouldn’t want engineers or economists designing a system alone, for human beings to inhabit. “We need the input of economists and engineers, but there have to be humanists involved. These are ultimately systems for human beings. And any system that’s designed that doesn’t take human nature into account—a really deep understanding of human nature—is likely to become a monstrous system.”

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How the Stressful World of Science Can Be Healthier (and More Ethical)

Last month, Tim van der Zee, a Ph.D. student at the University of Leiden who studies ways to improve open online education, got a bit snarky. He didn’t take well to a recent news article from Science magazine about how meditation can help Ph.D. students handle their outsized rates of anxiety and depression. “A recent study suggests that mindfulness interventions—a form of exercise for the brain—may help,” the publication tweeted, linking to the article. Van der Zee’s reply garnered hundreds of retweets and over a thousand likes: “Ah yes,” he said, “the correct response to the widespread problem of mental health problems in phd students is not to tackle it systematically but to... *checks notes*... make it their personal responsibility, [and] increase their workload with daily exercises…”

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Being a Parent as a Source of Ethics Risk

In 1973, in speaking to colleagues on the Cook County Democratic Committee, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago defended his having directed a million dollars of insurance business to an agency on behalf of his son John with the immortal words: “If I can’t help my sons, then [my critics] can kiss my ass. I make no apologies to anyone.”

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The Hidden Insights Evolution Has for Healthy Businesses

Charles Darwin ended The Origin of Species, his argument for evolution by natural selection, on a note of celebrated eloquence. “There is grandeur to this view of life,” he wrote, “with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

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How to Make Lying at Your Company Normal

Earlier this month at the Beacon Theater, in New York City, Daniel Kahneman, famed author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, had a conversation with neuroscientist Sam Harris. It ranged over many of the topics the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral scientist has explored in his work. This included the “remembering” and “experiencing” self, where intuitions reliably fail, and—while discussing obstacles to desirable behavior—the need for ethical systems design. “You want to create systems whereby even mediocre, which is to say normal people, can behave better and better effortlessly,” Harris said. “You don’t want systems where you have to be a saint to do something good or proper.”

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Socialism and Conflicts of Interest

There was a time in my life when I might have embraced the cause of socialism, but that was many years ago, and today I proudly march under the banner of centrism. And the current flirtation with socialism in the U.S. has me worried—at least a little bit.

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Wall Street and the Behavioral Science of Making Culture Ethical

Before he became “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort, when he arrived in New York in the 1980s, was more like a starry-eyed sheep. That’s how Leonardo DiCaprio plays him in The Wolf of Wall Street, the film adapted from Belfort’s 2007 memoir of his years as a stockbroker. In an early scene from the film, Belfort brims with a rookie’s optimism about starting at investment banking firm L.F. Rothschild, under stockbroker Mark Hanna, played by Matthew McConaughey. He can’t wait to help make Hanna’s impressive clients more money, but he learns that isn’t quite Hanna’s modus operandi. “F[—] the clients,” Hanna tells Belfort. “Your only responsibility is to put meat on the table.”

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