It’s Not About Me: An Ethical Reminder

As we begin a new decade, the ethical fiber of employers and employees will be challenged. The paradox of hyper-connectivity and isolation, as well as an orientation to “me vs. we” can be breeding ground for inappropriate behavior. So what makes ordinary people, like you and me, sometimes choose the self vs. selfless path? Is this a flu-like situation or perhaps part of our DNA? Is the cure an inoculation, or is it a deeper issue?  Or, like Don Quixote, are we just chasing windmills?

Perhaps a healthy ethical reminder is in order. Let’s begin our short journey.

Dylan Selterman teaches psychology at the University of Maryland. At the end of the course, when grades can often hinge on a few precious points, he gives them this extra-credit exercise: allow them to choose between two points or six points of extra credit—but there’s a catch. He stipulates that if more than 10 percent of the class members choose six points, no one gets any points.

According to some free-market economic theories, if everyone strives for maximum personal benefit, then societies will thrive. By this logic, the student’s rational choice would be to pick six points. A possible solution seems simple: If everyone just moderated their consumption, we’d have sustainability. As many of his students said, “If everyone chooses two points, we’ll all get the points.” And yet, for the first eight years he used this exercise, only one class—of the dozens he taught—stayed under the 10 percent threshold. All the other classes failed. Not good.

Professor Selterman’s extra-credit exercise is based on the tragedy of the commons. According to Investopedia, the tragedy of the commons is an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. It results in overconsumption, underinvestment, and ultimately depletion of the resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits. Generally, the resource of interest is readily available to all individuals; the tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain. That is quite a mouth full but the concept is simple; maximizing me over elevating we can be devastating for all.

Dr. Kang Lee did a series of studies that placed a child in a room and told them they were going to play a guessing game. The facilitator placed the cards on the table face down and told the child that if they guessed the numbers on the cards, they would win a big prize. The researcher then left the room but told the child not to peek at the cards. Cameras recorded the results. At age two, 30 percent of the children peeked but lied when asked if they did so. At age three, 50 percent peeked and at age four, 80 percent. The results were the same regardless of gender, country, religion, or other factors. The study seems to indicate that deception begins at an early age.

Another perspective is justifying inappropriate or unethical behavior for a “good cause.” In an article titled, “Self-serving Justifications: Doing Wrong and Feeling Moral” published in the Association of Psychological Science Journal, the authors reported that “self-serving justifications emerging before and after people engage in intentional ethical violations mitigate the threat to the moral self, enabling them to do wrong while feeling moral.” In other words, doing wrong for a good cause is right.

A word of optimism. After years of failures, Professor Selteman introduced a third option: Students could choose two points, six points—or zero points. That’s right. Zero. Why would anyone do that? Well, for each student who chose zero points, one of the six-point choosers (selected randomly) would lose everything, reducing the total number of six-point choosers by one.

The zero-point option is self-sacrificial; students forgo points for themselves to help the group by restraining those who take too much. In behavioral experiments, this type of action is called altruistic punishment, a term coined by economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter. Their research documented people willingly giving up some of their resources to punish those who behave selfishly in a group context—and doing so in the belief that every individual will profit from increased cooperation.

Usually, a few of his students each semester choose the zero-point option, and sometimes that’s all it took. Just a handful of people can make a huge difference—that is, a few self-sacrificing students can bring down the total number of six-point choosers to below the 10 percent threshold. Now roughly half his classes receive the extra-credit points. Perhaps there is hope after all!

So what is an employer to do?

First, recognize that the changing business, technical, and social environments can create confusion with your employees. Communicate openly and transparently with your employees, and allow them to express their confusion and concerns. Second, review, modify, and reinforce the principles on which your organization stands. Third, get ahead of issues by making ethics a business objective vs. an HR issue. Model ethical behavior at all levels of the organization and hold employers accountable for unethical behavior.