Research on the Giving Voice to Values curriculum

I have been corresponding with Mary Gentile, the creator of the widely used Giving Voice to Values curriculum. I asked her: “Is there any research showing behavioral effects of the curriculum? I know that this is extremely difficult to show, beyond the classroom.”

Here is her very thoughtful response, which she graciously agreed to let me post publicly. I think it offers encouragement for believing that the curriculum is effective:

I often get questions about evidence for the impact of the GVV curriculum/pedagogy (; as I travel around the world sharing the approach. As you know, there is not a definitive answer to this question but I tend to respond with reference to 4 “levels” of support as follows:

Level 1) Empirical evidence: The GVV approach was developed based on research in several fields that suggested that “rehearsal” or practice was an effective way to influence behavior: for example, social psychology (positive deviance); cognitive neuroscience (Damasio); kinesthetics (‘specific state muscle memory”); etc.

Level 2) Anecdotal evidence: For example, as faculty and companies use this curriculum, I receive reports of folks who say they tried the approach and found it effective.

Level 3) Pre/Post survey: Some faculty do pre/post surveys of their students. In particular, there is a professor in Australia (Ben Shaw, Bond University) who has done a nice job of designing and describing the results of this type of survey. I am happy to connect you if you like.

Level 4) The “holy grail”: The “holy grail” of such research would be the longitudinal study that shows that the person exposed to GVV training, years later, found a way to voice/enact their values effectively. I am not sure it is possible to design such a study for all the reasons you are aware of. At best, it seems one might find “correlative” connections (as opposed to “causal”), given all the intervening and ancillary inputs – “noise” in the system. A few years ago, I worked with Daylian Cain (Yale Univ) to try to design such a study. It was challenging because it seemed that the most obvious approach would be to design what I call an “entrapment” study where participants are exposed to GVV and then presented with a temptation/opportunity to act unethically. I was not comfortable with that approach. At any rate, we tried to design a study that would focus more on participants’ expressed “readiness” levels or confidence to enact their values but were unable to find a design that was simple and direct enough to be effective.

As you note in your email, it is notoriously difficult to design such research, just as it is for other so-called “soft skills” —  leadership, diversity management, etc. Moreover, I think that I view this work and the evaluation somewhat differently. I don’t see GVV as about changing folks who are “unethical” into “ethical” folks. Rather I tend to think of the audience as a bell curve (see pages 4–5 of attached article, “Values-Driven Leadership Development: Where We Have Been and Where We Could Go”, by Mary C. Gentile, Organization Management Journal, Sept 2012.):

“Once again, GVV flips the answer to this question about who we are teaching. Instead of visualizing the “toughest nut to crack,” so to speak, we envision the student body as a bell curve.  At one tail of the curve, let’s assume we have those who self-identify as “opportunists” (those who will claim that they typically pursue their own perceived material self-interest, regardless of values). At the other tail of the curve, we have those who self-identify as “idealists” (those who attempt to adhere to their values, regardless of the impact on their material self-interest). We premise that the majority (and I place myself in this group) will fall under the bell, and we identify those as “pragmatists” (those who would like to adhere to their values, as long as it doesn’t put them at a systematic disadvantage). Notice that this does not mean that a pragmatist does not require the certainty that he or she would never pay a price or always succeed, but rather that they can believe they have a shot at being effective.

Now once we envision the student body in this way, the GVV approach would suggest that we don’t presume that we have the power to change the opportunists, and that we are less concerned with the idealists, except we would like them to develop their competence and clarity of analysis. Instead, we want to focus upon the pragmatists. These are folks to whom we can say that the focus upon Action provided by means of GVV, will provide the skills, tools, insights and importantly, the practice (“rehearsal”) to better prepare you for effectiveness and success in your effort to be who you already want to be, at your best. In other words, GVV does not take a persuasive or a preaching stance, but an enabling one. The intent is to work with the best impulses in the students rather than to work against their worst.”

Framed this way, even though the target audiences are not the so-called “opportunists”, the focus is to impact the “pragmatists” and the “idealists”, thereby changing the waters in which the opportunists are swimming and hopefully also altering their calculus for what is most likely to be effective, even for their objectives.

And frankly, I believe that using the GVV-style pedagogical approach in both ethics classes but even more so, in the other business functional courses (economics, finance, operations, marketing, etc.), can change the norms and expectations about what is desirable and possible in a powerful way. (See “Educationg for Values-Driven Leadership: Giving Voice To Values Across the Curriculum”, Business Expert Press, 2013, edited by Mary C. Gentile).



I think this is a very helpful way of thinking about the difficulty of measuring the effectiveness of any ethics curriculum. And I agree with Gentile that there are good reasons to expect that practicing a response beforehand will raise the likelihood of making the response when the need arises, so the curriculum seems quite sensible to me. I do think research of the sort she describes is possible, and that an “entrapment” study would be a great test. For example, you put MBA students into an ethically difficult situation, a few months after half of them have had the course and half have not, and then see if those who had the course are more likely to report a problem, or refuse to go along. As Gentile points out, such a study could raise ethical problems of its own, but such studies are done, and do pass IRB review, and can be done in ways that induce minimal stress in participants. (See the cheating research done by Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely for examples.) I hope that some sort of empirical studies will be done, on a variety of ethics curricula, in the coming years.