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This is a review of Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel’s new book ‘Blind Spots: why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it‘ published by Princeton. Before I start a disclaimer seems right. I receive review books from Princeton and have received this book free of cost for review. Considering that I love free stuff, esp if it is good psychology / neuroscience books, and considering the fact that Princeton editors are more likely to send review copies to those who give a positive review, there is a potential conflict of interest. Now that I have disclosed this conflict of interest, my review should be less biased and more responsible. Or so you thought!

Not so, if we go by Max and Ann’s research. They don’t specifically study the problem of bias in book reviews🙂 , but have gathered a pile of evidence in related conflicts of interest scenarios like a researcher publishing on efficacy of a drug where the sponsor of the study is a drug company ; or the auditors disclosing their other consulting businesses with the audited firm; all of which point to the fact that disclosing (or being mandated to disclose) our conflicts of interest , sort of gives us a license to be biased; and more so when authors are explicit about the conflict of interest, the readers are less likely to detect the bias.

The above is just one of the numerous examples of what the authors call bounded ethicality, in the same vein as bounded rationality. As per the bounded ethical view of human nature, we have limited resources esp the conscious deliberate decision making moral system resources as compared to the other fast and intuitive decision making system. The trouble lies with the fact that we are blind to how we will act in a future ethical dilemma (because we have hard time visualizing that our ‘want’ self will override our’ should’ self in the heat of the moment) or even if we will see the issue as an ethical issue at all (the case of ethical fading) .

When those in our organizations or government try to make policies that don’t take into account these psychological realities or blind spots, what effects they have on ethical issue is either sub-optimal or may even backfire. To take two well known examples: if an organization uses punishment as a tactics to enforce ethical behavior it may backfire. Consider the well known daycare center/ school study wherein parents were punished with a minimal fine if they didn’t pick their child at time after school. Thsi resulted in more parents being late to pick their child as instead of seeing it as a a moral or ethical issue involving the guilt system, they re-framed it and started seeing it an economical terms and using a reward (cost/benefit analysis) system.

Another famous example is that of opt-in or opt-out forms for organ donation and the corresponding different rates of organ donations in different countries. Here Max and Ann advocate Richard Thaler style Nudges to make best use of human blind spots to achieve ethical policy goals.

Max and ANN touch on a vriety of t=ethical issue aand blind spots at individual , organizational and society level and the discourse is peppered with actual real world examples like Enron – Arthur Anderson fiasco or Ford Pinto gas-chamber disaster. The examples, although taken from the US point of view, have global appeal and visibility and would be accessible to people form other nations too. This book is a must read for those who are in charge of organizational or society level implementation of ethical policies and programs, but is also helpful for us , the corporate or academic individual contributors/ mangers/administrators as to how we can apply the psychology of bounded ethicality to change ourselves and the world around us.

Despite having a strongly ethical/ moral agenda, the book strays clear of imposing a particular set of ethical values , either implicitly or explicitly, on others. The only appeal they make is to be true to oneself and if one wants to be ethical how to not be foooled into thinking that one is indeed acting ethically while indulging in unethical (by ones own standard) behavior. If you want to be an ethical person or organization and are sometimes left nonplussed by the unethical behavior that still ensues nonetheless, then this is the right book to help you understand and correctly ensure that ethical behavior happens when push comes to shove.

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