The Ethical Dangers of Deliberative Decision Making

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The Ethical Dangers of Deliberative Decision Making Chen-Bo Zhong University of Toronto

Research on ethical decision making has been heavily influenced by normative decision theories that view intelligent choices as involving conscious deliberation and analysis. Recent developments in moral psychology, however, suggest that moral functions involved in ethical decision making are metaphorical and embodied. The research presented here suggests that deliberative decision making may actually increase unethical behaviors and reduce altruistic motives when it overshadows implicit, intuitive influences on moral judgments and decisions. Three lab experiments explored the potential ethical dangers of deliberative decision making. Experiments 1 and 2 showed that deliberative decision making, activated by a math problem-solving task or by simply framing the choice as a decision rather than an intuitive reaction, increased deception in a one-shot deception game. Experiment 3—which activated systematic thinking or intuitive feeling about the choice to donate to a charity—found that deliberative decision making could also decrease altruism. These findings highlight the potential ethical downsides of a rationalistic approach toward ethical decision making and call for a better understanding of the intuitive nature of moral functioning. Corporate scandals have crowded American media for the last decade: Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and what contributed to the recent Wall Street meltdown, to name just a few. Although individuals’ unethical conduct—such as hiding corporate losses to obtain lucrative bonuses, reporting fraudulent auditing to secure a client, or giving loans to home buyers who cannot afford them—are seldom the sole cause, their decisions sit at the center of those calamities. This makes understanding how people resolve ethical dilemmas that pit self-interest against doing the right thing more important than ever. Consequently, studies on ethical decision making have proliferated across multiple disciplines, including behavioral economics, organizational behavior, and psychology. A recent review (Tenbrunsel and Smith-Crowe, 2008) counted 54 articles in the field of organizational behavior on ethics from 1980 to 1989, and 473 from 2000 to 2007. As its name suggests, the ethical decision-making literature is heavily influenced by normative decision theories that characterize intelligent choices as involving systematic and analytic deliberation (March, 1988). Expected utility theory, for example, assumes that individuals know what is best for them (e.g., utility) and seek Bayesian maximization of their expected utility. Although behavioral decision research has provided numerous qualifications to the assumption that people are able to maximize their utility, documenting a wide array of cognitive heuristics and biases (e.g., Tversky and Kahneman, 1974), they have only rarely challenged the normative nature of decision theories. As a result, decision models continue to work under the assumption that decision makers should be deliberative and analytical (Etzioni, 1988; Moore and Flynn, 2008). This rationalistic approach dominates research on ethics even though ethical decision making usually involves a different set of principles than decision making under uncertainty. With few exceptions, major 1/Administrative Science Quarterly, 56 (2011): 1–25

© 2011 by Johnson Graduate School, Cornell University. 0001-8392/11/5601-0001/$3.00.

This project benefited from the financial assistance of the Dispute Resolution Research Center at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. I want to thank Stéphane Côté, Sanford DeVoe, Adam Galinsky, Julian House, Keith Murnighan, Brendan Strejcek, and three anonymous reviewers for their constructive and insightful comments on early versions of this manuscript.

theories in the field of organizational research consider ethical decision making as a conscious, intentional, and...
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