Ethical Systems Engineering

Jonathan Haidt at NYU Stern School of Business is leading a nudge-like approach to ethical behavior, known as ethical systems engineering. In essence, research demonstrates that courses in ethics have little bearing on individuals’ ability to behave ethically outside of the classroom once the class is finished. Encouraging ethical behavior, therefore, becomes a matter of changing the rules of the game (in a sense). Here’s the analogy:

As an organizing framework, we view the human mind as being like a small rider (conscious, controlled mental processes) on top of a very large elephant (unconscious and automatic processes, including intuition and emotion).  The metaphor comes originally from Haidt, but was developed further by Heath & Heath, who noted that If you want to change behavior, you’ve got three options: Change the rider, change the elephant, or change the path.

The guiding idea of is that the best way to improve ethical behavior is to change the path. The second best way is to change the elephant. The least effective way is to train the rider.

So, the implication is that if business school students have generally lower scores on ethics scales (which research shows they do – see Haidt in this 2.5 minute video here), the answer is not an ethic course. Rather, it is a more directed study of the systems of incentives and the psychological influences which lead to (for them rationally) unethical behavior.

This is a fascinating and important project, which I look forward to following in the future. [Here is a past video from Dan Ariely on cheating, which fits ideally into this paradigm.]

(HT: Sullivan)


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