When we see someone doing something bad, we usually jump to the conclusion that the person is bad. Only later, if ever, do we consider the broader context—the social situation—which can strongly influence people’s behavior. Many of the classic experiments in social psychology are famous because they show how easily situations can overwhelm our moral characters. For instance, the Milgram experiments showed that men would continue pressing a button to deliver electric shocks to a man that—as far as they knew—had just died of a heart attack. They would not get up and help him, as long as the experimenter told them to continue delivering shocks. But small changes to the experimental situation had huge effects on the men’s behavior—for example, if there was another person in the room who questioned the experimenter’s judgment, then almost nobody continued delivering the shocks.
Encouraging ethical behavior means doing much more than trying to educate people about how they should behave; it means understanding and leveraging the powerful effects of the environment. The key to enabling people to be as moral as possible is designing an ethical environment that makes such behavior easy, automatic, and habitual.
- Harness contextual triggers. Fostering ethical behavior requires creating an environment that reminds people of their moral principles. For instance, in one experiment by Lisa Shu and her colleagues students cheated less on an exam when the honor code was placed at the beginning of the exam than when it was placed at the end.
- Decrease the likelihood of cheating by showing how most people are honest most of the time. Other people can lead us to behave unethically, but they are also the key to helping us behave ethically. Just as you can increase the likelihood of lying, cheating, and stealing by saying that “everyone is doing it,” you can also decrease unethical behavior by showing the truth about how rare such unethical behavior may actually be. In his book Why Leaders Lie (public library), political scientist John Mearshimer describes how surprisingly rare lying and outright dishonesty are, even among career politicians and diplomats. Most often, people are trying to tell the truth as they know it, or are shading the truth rather than lying about it completely. Would such news encourage even more honesty even among politicians?
- Identify and remove environmental barriers to ethical behavior. Rather than incentivizing or pushing people to improve their behavior, it’s often simpler to get, identify, and remove environmental barriers. Are there barriers in your organization that are keeping people from behaving ethically? If so, how can you remove them?
How do contexts bias experience?
People tend to interpret and understand the world from their own unique perspectives, based on the most readily available information, with little consideration or awareness of how their judgments are shaped by their own idiosyncratic perspectives. For instance, Ross & Ward describe how this can lead to “naive realism”—a belief that one’s own evaluations are accurate, and therefore that others who disagree are biased. They also address how naive realism can undermine cooperation. (To view a free draft version, click here). Lieberman et al. also show how altering construal can affect ethical behavior: people behave more cooperatively with others when they are playing the “Community Game,” but behave more selfishly when playing the “Wall Street Game.” Additionally, Epley & Caruso review how construal processes can lead to self-serving moral judgments and behaviors which – in the eyes of those who partake in them – seem completely rational and unbiased.
How do social contexts influence social behavior?
Although Americans, at least, take great pride in their rugged individualism, research confirms over and over again that when people are in groups they typically conform to what others are doing. Fischer et al. present a recent review of findings on “bystander nonintervention”: people are less likely to intervene in an emergency when other bystanders are present; they are simply doing what other passive bystanders are doing. Additionally, Cialdini describes how messages suggesting that others are behaving unethically (by stealing petrified wood from a national forest) can actually increase theft by influencing people to think, “everybody is doing it.” The presence of others can also lead people to behave more ethically if they know they’re being watched. See Bateson, Nettle and Roberts, and Rigdon et al for more on the effects of being watched and other social cues.
- Prison violence, even extreme acts such as the abuses from American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, can be enabled by specific aspects of the prison environment, leading to less ethical behavior. For a full description of how this can happen, and how you can design a system where people can behave more ethically, see Phil Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (public library). The documentary about the fall of Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room, also describes how the environment created by Jeff Skilling helped to foster dishonest. As one former Enron employee said, “If your boss was fudging and you have never worked anywhere else, you just assume that everybody fudges earnings.”
- Although not exclusively about ethics, in “A Tale of Two Plants: NUMMI Teamwork Versus GM Bureaucracy,” from the book Rude Awakening: The Rise, Fall, and Struggle for Recovery of General Motors (public library,) Keller describes how a General Motors plant in Freemont, California went from being one of the worst in the GM line – plagued by rampant absenteeism, drug abuse, conflict and violence – to being one of the best after Toyota took it over and radically changed the work environment. The key ingredient? Whereas GM management thought of their employees as “no mind idiots” who were only working for a paycheck, Toyota management treated the workers like human beings who wanted to take pride in their work and knew how to do their jobs if given the opportunity to do so. You can hear more about this turnaround in an episode from NPR’s This American Life.
- In their excellent book Nudge (public library), Thaler & Sunstein describe how managers, leaders, teachers, or anyone else interested in helping people act better may do so by altering environments in way that make is easy for people to be as good, and as smart, as they otherwise want to be.
- Because research on construal has focused on individuals, how can we change construals in an entire organization?
- Nudge, by Thaler & Sunstein (public library)
- Influence, by Cialdini (public library)
- The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Zimbardo (public library)
- Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, by Norenzayan (public library)
- Out of Character, by DeSteno and Valdesolo (public library)
View more videos with expert discussions and lectures dealing with contextual influences, as well as presentations of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment on our Contextual Influence playlist at the Ethical Systems YouTube channel.
This page is overseen by Nicholas Epley. Other researchers may have added content.
Miscellaneous Links & References
- Studying economics makes people more selfish/greedy (review of studies, from Adam Grant)
- Piff & Keltner, on how high social class (real or induced) causes more unethical behavior [here, here]
- Kern & Chugh (2009) Bounded ethicality: The perils of loss framing. “Decision makers engaged in more unethical behavior if a decision was presented in a loss frame than if the decision was presented in a gain frame.”
- Forensics experts use psychological assessments differently depending on whether they think they are being hired by the prosecution or the defense. (Murrie et al., 2013)
- Kouchaki (2014) The morning morality effect. People “engaged in less unethical behavior (e.g., less lying and cheating) on tasks performed in the morning than on the same tasks performed in the afternoon. This morning morality effect was mediated by decreases in moral awareness and self-control in the afternoon.”