The first key finding of behavioral ethics: we overestimate our ethical behavior

Behavioral ethics series #2: creating successful companies attuned to the values and challenges of the 21st century

In the first text of this series, I discussed what is behavioral ethics and why this subject is important for all business leaders.

Although recent, this field has reached two major conclusions.

The first is that we have a strong tendency to fall short of our ethical standards. That is, we often do not realize that there is a gap between how ethical we would like to be and how ethical we actually have been.

The second is that most of the wrong things are done by ordinary individuals (or simply “good people”) as a result of their cognitive biases, day-to-day pressures, and perverse temporal dynamics they are subject to.

In this article, I focus on the first conclusion which argues that we have a strong tendency to overestimate our ethical conduct.

To illustrate this finding, I have personally conducted a survey with 197 senior managers — mostly directors and C-level executives — who attended courses for board members in Brazil from 2015 to 2019. These senior managers were on average 51 years old and answered the questions anonymously before the first class of the course (78% of respondents were men; 22% women).

Inspired by a similar exercise created by Max Bazerman from Harvard Business School and Ann Tenbrunsel from the University of Notre Dame,[i] I initially asked them: “Are you currently satisfied with your day-to-day ethical behavior?” Subject to a binary option yes/no, a staggering percentage of 97% of executives said “yes, I’m satisfied with my current ethical behavior.”

I then proceeded to ask three additional questions: “From 0 to 100, how ethical do you think you have been compared to the average citizen of the population?” The subjects were informed that 0 (zero) corresponded to the least-ethical person in the country’s population, 100 corresponded to the most ethical person, and 50 stood for an ethical behavior similar to the average citizen of the population.

The chart below presents their responses.

As depicted in the chart, no senior executive self-scored him or herself less than 50. In fact, 32 subjects answered 100, claiming to be the most ethical person in Brazil’s population of over 210 million people. Overall, the mean was 84 and the median 90. This obviously reveals the huge self-confidence on their ethical behavior compared to that of the “ordinary” citizen.

I also asked executives to compare themselves with other employees from their companies — in theory, a more homogeneous group composed of individuals socially closer to respondents than the average citizen of the population. In this case, I asked: “Compared to the people working in your company, how ethical do you think you are?” The answers are presented in the next chart.

As shown above, the results were qualitatively the same. The median was 85 and the median remained at 90. In addition, 28% of the senior executives claimed to be the most ethical individuals of their organization. This is a highly unlikely result, as research shows that power tends to reduce our empathy and undermine our ethical behavior.[ii]

The big exception came from an individual at the bottom right of the chart who answered just 10. A reflection on this “outlier” leads to two possibilities: either he or she did something serious that day at his or her firm (perhaps better not to be aware of to avoid being an accomplice), or this individual simply made a mistake in his or her response, scoring 10 in the survey instead of 100.

Finally, I asked senior executives how ethical their companies are compared to those of their peers. The results were similar to the previous charts. The average score was 84, and the median remained at an astounding 90, indicating that more than half of executives believe their companies are among the top 10% ethical companies of the market.

Interestingly, it is noteworthy that several respondents of this survey worked for companies involved in Brazil’s huge Car Wash (“Lava Jato”) corruption scandal and were now taking part in corporate governance courses as an effort to improve their company’s ethical standards. Thus, even working in companies involved in scandals did not make executives less optimistic about the ethical behavior of their organizations!

For comparison purposes, similar surveys in the United States have yielded nearly identical results, with the average ranging from 75%–80%, while another US research found that 84% of the people considered themselves to be morally correct and honest.[iii]

The summary of behavioral ethics’ first conclusion, therefore, is that we have a strong tendency to fall short of our ethical standards: In general, we tend to consider ourselves to be more virtuous, honest, trustworthy, fairer, and more supportive than the average person.

In reality, though, the best predictor of how we will actually behave seems to be how we predict others will behave in a given circumstance. Many scientific studies have empirically corroborated this assertion.[iv]

One study asked 270 participants to judge themselves and the average person on 30 personality traits reflecting three core dimensions of social perception: morality, competence, and sociability.[v] Virtually all individuals inflated their moral qualities.

In particular, the magnitude of such “positive illusion” was much greater in morality issues than in those who are desirable but do not have a moral quality (such as determination, intelligence, etc.). The authors concluded that “most people consider themselves paragons of virtue; yet few individuals perceive this abundance of virtue in others.”

Another study, curiously entitled “Behind Bars but Above the Bar,” found that even prisoners consider themselves to be morally superior than most people.[vi] This research, carried out with convicted offenders at a prison in the south of England, asked inmates to compare themselves against two groups, i.e., other prisoners and members of the community, on nine pro-social characteristics such as kindness, morality, honesty, generosity, and law abidingness.

Although serving sentences for violence, robbery, burglary, and drug trafficking (among other offenses), prisoners rated themselves better than individuals from the two comparison groups on all traits except for “law abidingness.”

In particular, they rated themselves as more moral, more kind, more self-controlled, more compassionate, more generous, more trustworthy, and more honest. In the case of law abidingness, despite being imprisoned exactly for violating the law, inmates considered themselves equal (but not worse) than the average member of the community.

Our overconfidence about our ethical conduct, therefore, creates an illusion of moral superiority that may make us complacent about our behavior. This is dangerous because it can lead us to behaving unethically justified by the conviction that, deep down, we are good and honest people.

Consequently, one of the main consensuses among social psychologists is that we are intrinsically moralistic, judgmental, and righteous, and our behavior is often inconsistent and contradictory. We have, therefore, a strong propensity to the so-called “moral hypocrisy.”[vii]

Examples of moral hypocrisy abound in daily news. One instance comes from Emilio Odebrecht, patriarch of the huge construction group “Odebrecht” involved in what has been considered the biggest documented case of corporate corruption in history.

In May 2015, he wrote a column in a newspaper strongly disapproving bribery. In the text, the businessman stated that “Corruption is a serious problem and must be treated with respect to the law,” and that it is urgent “to get rid of both briberies and mismanagement, because these two plagues drain wealth, taxpayer money and moral values.” To conclude, he emphasized that “Tackling corruption is necessary … because the cause that binds all of us is to build a better country for future generations.”[viii]

A year and a half later, Emilio was sentenced to four years under house arrest thanks to the Operation Car Wash. In 2017, he confessed in a testimony that slush funds in his company “have always existed, since my father’s time.”[ix]

It’s not all bad news, though.

We have a great “ethical potential” as the vast majority of people, with the exception of a few psychopaths scattered in the population, sincerely want to make a positive contribution to society and do no harm to others.[x]

To fulfill our “ethical potential,” the first (great) step to take is to be humble and opened to accept the limitations of our mind and to recognize the power that the context may have over our judgments.

Harvard Business School Professor Eugene Soltes endorses this statement in his book “Why They Do It.” After interviewing dozens of white-collar criminals, he concluded that

“In our own small ways, we are all susceptible to making the same mistakes as these former executives. Appreciating our lack of invincibility — our inherent weakness and frailty — offers us the best chance of designing the appropriate mechanisms to help manage these limitations… it’s only when we realize that our ability to err is much greater than we often think it is that we’ll begin to take the necessary steps to change and improve.”[xi]

In the next article, I will detail the reasons behind our inflated perception of our ethical behavior.

We will see that this distorted perception of reality is the outcome of i) typical features of our cognitive system that generate cognitive biases as well as of ii) the stages and dynamics for our decision-making.

To sum up:

§ The first key conclusion of behavioral ethics is that have a strong tendency to overestimate our ethical conduct. Thus, we often do not realize that there is a significant gap between how ethical we would like to be and how ethical we really have been.

§ Plenty of scientific evidence shows that we tend to consider ourselves to be more virtuous, honest, trustworthy, fairer, and more supportive than the average person.

§ The reality, though, is that with have a strong propensity to the so-called “moral hypocrisy” as our behavior is often inconsistent and contradictory.

§ This overconfidence about our ethical conduct is dangerous, as it can lead to an illusion of moral superiority that paves the way for unethical behaviors justified by our conviction that we are good and honest people.

§ The vast majority of people truly want to make a positive contribution to society and do no harm to others. To fulfill this “ethical potential”, the first step is to be humble and accept both the limitations of our mind and the power that the context may have over our judgments.

Prof. Dr. Alexandre Di Miceli is a professional speaker, business thinker and founder of Virtuous Company, a top management consultancy that provides cutting edge knowledge on corporate governance, ethical culture, leadership, diversity, and company purpose.

He is the author of “The Virtuous Barrel: How to Transform Corporate Scandals into Good Businesses” as well as of the best-selling books on corporate governance and business ethics in Brazil, including “Corporate Governance in Brazil and in the World”, “Behavioral Business Ethics: Solutions for Management in the 21st Century”, and “Corporate Governance: The Essentials for Leaders”.

He thanks Prof. Dr. Angela Donaggio for her valuable comments and suggestions.

[i] Bazerman, M. H., & Tenbrunsel, A. E. (2011). Blind spots: Why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it. Princeton University Press.

[ii] Piff, P. K. (2014). Wealth and the inflated self-class, entitlement, and narcissism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(1), 34–43; Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(11), 4086–4091; Lammers, J., Stoker, J. I., & Stapel, D. A. (2010). Power and behavioral approach orientation in existing power relations and the mediating effect of income. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(3), 543–551; Van Kleef, G. A., Oveis, C., Van Der Löwe, I., LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J., & Keltner, D. (2008). Power, distress, and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological science, 19(12), 1315–1322.

[iii] Bazerman, M. H., & Tenbrunsel, A. E. (2011). Blind spots: Why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it. Princeton University Press. Aquino, K., & Reed II, A. (2002). The self-importance of moral identity. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(6), 1423.

[iv] Tappin, B. M., & McKay, R. T. (2017). The illusion of moral superiority. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8(6), 623–631. Guenther, C. L., & Timberlake, E. A. (2012). The motivated self: self-affirmation and the better-than-average effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Zell, E., & Alicke, M. D. (2011). Age and the Better‐Than‐Average Effect. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(5), 1175–1188. Messick, D. M., & Bazerman, M. H. (1996). Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological bulletin, 103(2), 193. Ethics for the twenty-first century: A decision making approach. Messick, D. M., Bloom, S., Boldizar, J. P., & Samuelson, C. D. (1985). Why we are fairer than others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 21(5), 480–500.

[v] Tappin e McKay (2017). Curiously, the authors did not find a significant relationship between the illusion of moral superiority and participants’ self-esteem.

Tappin, B. M., & McKay, R. T. (2017). The illusion of moral superiority. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8(6), 623–631.

[vi] Sedikides, C., Meek, R., Alicke, M. D., & Taylor, S. (2014). Behind bars but above the bar: Prisoners consider themselves more prosocial than non‐prisoners. British Journal of Social Psychology, 53(2), 396–403.

[vii] In his book on the reasons why people have polarized views on issues such as religion and politics, Haidt (2012: Introduction, XXIII) concluded: “the take-home message of the book is ancient. It is the realization that we are all self-righteous hypocrites”. Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.

[viii] Folha de São Paulo. 08/12/2016. Emílio Odebrecht vai cumprir 4 anos em prisão domiciliar na Lava Jato. Available at http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2016/12/1839414-emilio-odebrecht-vai-cumprir-4-anos-em-prisao-domiciliar-na-lava-jato.shtml; Folha de São Paulo. 03/05/2015. Emílio Odebrecht: Uma agenda para o futuro. Available at http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/opiniao/2015/05/1623461-emilio-odebrecht-uma-agenda-para-o-futuro.shtml

[ix] Folha de São Paulo. 13/03/2017. Sempre existiu caixa dois, diz Emílio Odebrecht à Justiça. Available at http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2017/03/1866042-sempre-existiu-caixa-dois-diz-emilio-odebrecht-a-justica.shtml

[x] Aquino, K., & Reed II, A. (2002). The self-importance of moral identity. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(6), 1423.

[xi] Soltes (2016: 9; 329–330). Soltes, E. (2016). Why they do it: inside the mind of the white-collar criminal. PublicAffairs.

--

--

--

Professional speaker, business thinker and founder of Virtuous Company, a top management consultancy on corporate governance, culture, leadership, and purpose.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Team Building Philosophy: Trust, Respect, Perseverance

The Agile Leadership Ecosystem

6 More Things Really Effective Leaders Understand & Consistently Take Account Of!

Empathy in leadership: Separating the goods from the greats

How Self-Reflection Can Help Lead You Through Crisis

How To Avoid Solving The Wrong Problems Really Well

Being Right Isn’t Enough. Being Kind Often Is.

Analyzing the space for change in UNDP’s Deep Demonstrations

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alexandre Di Miceli

Alexandre Di Miceli

Professional speaker, business thinker and founder of Virtuous Company, a top management consultancy on corporate governance, culture, leadership, and purpose.

More from Medium

My UC Berkeley Freshman Experience During the Pandemic

Loyalty among friends in a difficult situation

One step at a time

Crushing It: Your Media Interview