Decision Making

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Academy of Management Journal 2012, Vol. 55, No. 1, 13–33. http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amj.2009.0873

CONTEMPLATION AND CONVERSATION: SUBTLE INFLUENCES ON MORAL DECISION MAKING BRIAN C. GUNIA Johns Hopkins University LONG WANG City University of Hong Kong LI HUANG INSEAD JIUNWEN WANG J. KEITH MURNIGHAN Northwestern University This research investigated the role of contemplation, conversation (conceptualized as social contemplation), and explanation in right-wrong decisions. Several theories suggest that contemplation or morally oriented conversation will promote ethical decisions and that immediate choice or self-interested conversation will not; other theories suggest that individuals’ explanations will reinforce their decisions. An experimental task tempting people to lie supported all of these predictions. In addition, truth tellers viewed the situation as morally oriented, and non–truth tellers viewed it as oriented around self-interest, both before and after their decisions. These findings provided the basis for a new process model of moral decision making.

Moral decisions abound in organizations: builders choose between durable and cheap materials; salespeople choose to reveal or conceal available discounts; and accountants decide when creative becomes deceptive. Recent scandals at Goldman Sachs, Satyam Computers, Siemens, and Societe Generale document the importance of moral decisions for managers, employees, customers, and shareholders (Ashforth, Gioia, Robinson, & Trevino, 2008)—and these are just a few of many corporate examples. The unfortunate frequency of unethical decision making in organizations around the world raises obvious questions about the basic, underlying causes of these decisions. Moral decisions, which Jones (1991) and Kidder (1996) have characterized as value-based, voli-

We were very fortunate that the Dispute Resolution Research Center in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University funded this research. We are particularly grateful to them, and especially to Jeanne Brett, the center director. We are also thankful for the helpful comments that Max Bazerman provided on an earlier version of this article; his insights helped improve it tremendously. Editor’s note: The manuscript for this article was accepted for publication during the term of AMJ’s previous editor-in-chief, R. Duane Ireland. 13

tional choices with interdependent consequences, feature prominently in organizations. The current research investigates a set of moral decisions that are not just common but also crucially important in organizational contexts: right-wrong decisions (Ashforth et al., 2008; Beauchamp, Bowie, & Arnold, 2008; Brief, Buttram, & Dukerich, 2000; Darley, Messick, & Tyler, 2001; Jones, 1991; Tenbrunsel & Smith-Crowe, 2008). Although most people feel that they have a good sense of what is right and wrong, right-wrong decisions remain difficult because doing the wrong thing can be incredibly tempting. Yet, the long-term consequences of an unethical decision can impose dramatic costs on organizations (Beauchamp et al., 2008; Brief et al., 2000): recent allegations against Goldman Sachs, for instance, resulted in significant reputational damage and fines of US$550 million (Guerrera, Sender, & Baer, 2010). Thus, it is surprising that research on right-wrong decisions is not voluminous: many theoretical and empirical questions remain open, including questions concerning the basic, psychological processes that directly influence individuals’ moral decisions (Darley et al., 2001; Trevino, Weaver, & Reynolds, 2006). The literature on moral decision making, including both right-wrong and right-right decisions, has investigated the effects of a wide range of important indi-

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