Rachel Ruttan on Business’ Role in Eroding Sacred Values

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In this conversation with Ethical Systems, Brian Gallagher speaks with Rachel Ruttan about her recent paper, “Instrumental Use Erodes Sacred Values.” Across seven studies, she and her colleague probed the effects of exposing people to examples of companies and other organizations touting “sacred” values—like patriotism, diversity, or promoting racial justice—for self-interested purposes, like profit.

We discuss what a sacred value is and contrast it with what Ruttan calls secular values. How businesses are increasingly looking to promote values many people take to be sacred, like diversity and sustainability, and how that shifts how people feel about those values. We also discuss how companies that care about certain values should advertise their commitments, and what sorts of messaging companies should avoid. We also touch on the role costly signaling plays in communicating authentic messages about values.

Rachel Ruttan holds a PhD in Management and Organizations from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Her research interests include compassion and prosocial behavior, values, and moral judgment. Specifically, she studies lapses in interpersonal compassion, as well as the potential pitfalls of organizations’ attempts to appeal to morals and values, showing when and how “doing well by doing good” can backfire. Her research has been published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Organization Science, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Her work has been profiled in The New York Times, NPR, and The Harvard Business Review.