Laura Petrolino

Ethical Decision Making: Why Good People Do Bad Things

By: Laura Petrolino | April 17, 2014 | 
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Ethical Decision Making: Why Good People Do Bad ThingsBy Laura Petrolino

Three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi Adolf Eichmann for war crimes, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram began a round of experiments to understand why good people might be motivated to do bad things.

He was interested in how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person, such as happened in WWII Nazi Germany.

The experiments uncovered much more, however, and provided us insight into human motivation to act, or not act, ethical decision making, and our ability to reclassify right and wrong when we believed we are supporting a “higher cause.”

The volunteers being recruited were told they would be participating in a lab experiment investigating “learning.”

The participants played the role as “teacher,” and were suppose to test the “learner” who had recently learned a list of word pairs.

The entire experiment was lead by an “experimenter.”

Both the “learner” and the “experimenter” were actors.

Please Continue…

The learner was sent into another room and strapped to electrodes. Every time he got a word pairing wrong, the teacher (study participant) was told to administer a shock (not actually, but the learner in the other room would make noises of shock and pain as if he was being shocked).

Of course, the learner purposely gave wrong answers requiring the teacher to continue to shock him at increasing voltage. Anytime the participant refused to give a shock he was encouraged by the experimenter with verbal “prods.”

Prod 1: Please continue.

Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.

Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

You can learn more about the experiment, and watch a video at Simple Psychology. I also highly recommend you take some time to listen to this NPR interview discussing the experiment. This was what first introduced me to Milgram and it provides additional insight which is absolutely fascinating.

The results of Milgram’s experiment?

Sixty-five percent of participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts (which is extremely dangerous), and ALL the participants continued to 300 volts (remember, these weren’t real volts, but the participants thought they were!).

So what does this tell us?

It tells us good people will do bad things when put in an environment that encourages it. Whether as a result of the influence from an authority figure, a belief that the ends justify the means, or simply a means to survive a difficult situation; ethical decision making is often not black and white.

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

James W. Balassone, executive in residence at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, believes accepting this fact and being conscious of it is a very important step in ethical decision making.

“We want to believe in bad guys,” he told me when we discussed the issues of business ethics and ethical decision making last week, “because that way we don’t have to worry about bad systems or bad organizations.”

Balassone mentioned the work of psychologist Phil Zimbardo who has highlighted the danger of this belief through his famous Stanford Prision Experiment, which looked at the power of social situations to distort values, morals, and even personal identities.

Likewise, Zimbardo testified as an expert witness for U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, who is serving eight years in prison after pleading guilty to five charges of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Believing bad decisions are only made by “bad people” is a dangerous perspective, because it allows us to assume that because we are already a “good person,” we don’t need to worry about doing a bad thing, or making a bad choice. As a result, we often don’t take the time and care we should to think through all of the consequences and make the right choice.

“I firmly believe 90 percent of people know what the right thing to do is, they just don’t do it because they don’t take the time to think about the consequence of the decision on all stakeholders,” Balassone continued.

Ethical Decision Making? There’s an App for That!

Balassone and his colleagues have put together a series of questions which make up a framework for ethical decision making.

This framework was designed to assist you in evaluating potential consequences of your decisions from every angle.

The questions support you in the following core ethical decision making steps:

  • Recognize the issue.
  • Get the facts.
  • Evaluate alternative actions.
  • Make and test a decision.
  • Action and reflection (in order to help assist  you in further decision making).

And if you are on the road and need some ethical decision making support, don’t worry there is an app for that, too! 

In the end, it’s about mindfulness in what we do. It’s about taking the time to evaluate consequences on all stakeholders involved and make the best choices possible as a result.

It’s also about clearly defining and reinforcing a core set of organizational values, and having them serve as the foundation from which your organizational culture builds.

And finally it’s about accepting the fact that we all have the capacity to make bad decisions (that’s called being human), but we all also have the capacity to make good ones.

As business leaders, we are tasked with not just making ethical decisions ourselves, but building organizations and communities that encourage them among our teams and colleagues.

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks.

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