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Decision Making

The pause that refreshes your ethics Add to ...

The e-mail, asking you to make an ethically difficult choice, demands an immediate answer.

Tempting as it might be to leap at what’s best for you, you’re much more likely to do the right thing when you weigh your options than you are when you make a snap decision, according to new research.

“At a minimum, our results suggest that individuals facing right or wrong decisions should take the time to think or to consult an ethical colleague,” according to J. Keith Murnighan, a professor of management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, in Evanston, Ill.

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And better choices don’t have to take that much more time: “For us, it came down to about three minutes. Just sit yourself down and think about your options for three minutes; don’t watch your BlackBerry or open another e-mail,” Prof. Murnighan advised, based on the study he did along with Brian Gunia, assistant professor of Johns Hopkins University, and three graduate students at Northwestern.

“We’re programmed to self-interest. If we’re making a knee-jerk response, it’s easy to make a selfish choice we’ll regret later,” he said.

That became clear in a study that gave groups of about 150 college undergraduates a series of moral dilemmas. Seated at computer terminals, participants were told that $15 would be divided between them and another student.

Randomly assigned participants were told that a second student (who in the study was imaginary) could choose one of two options. Option A would give the first student $10 and the second student $5. Option B would give the first student $5 and the second student $10. Participants were told they had to send the second student one of two messages: The truth: “Option B earns you more than Option A.” Or a lie: “Option A earns you more than Option B.”

In one group, participants saw the choice flashed onto their screens and told they had to send a message within 30 seconds. A separate “contemplation” group was told the choices would be on their screens for three minutes before they had to reply, and asked to “please think very carefully about which message to send.”

The difference between the two groups was dramatic: 87 per cent of the subjects in the contemplation group told the truth, even though it resulted in their receiving less money than their anonymous counterparts. This compared with 56 per cent of the subjects who were told to make an immediate choice, in the study reported in the current issue of The Academy of Management Journal.

In a second experiment, subjects were confronted with the same two options, but this time, before making their decision, they received one of three brief e-mails from someone else (again fictional) who was supposedly facing the same dilemma. One message read: “Guess that most people would be honest on this kinda situation.” The second: “Couldn't help thinking that most other people would try to gain the most money.”

Again the results presented a stark contrast: 80 per cent of the subjects who received the ethical e-mail told the truth, compared to 50 per cent who were encouraged to act in their self-interest.

“The big question is what’s happening in those three minutes?” Prof Murnighan said. We’re positing that people look beyond the immediate gain to the consequences of their decision: Do I want to go home and realize I lied to get $10 rather than $5? I won’t feel great, so it’s not worth it.”



The research suggests that companies formalize cooling off periods before making decisions and require multiple levels of approval for issues that have ethical consequences, Prof. Murnighan said.

“Executives know what types of decisions raise moral red flags in their companies. If people make these decisions electronically, their computers might be programmed to require contemplation time before decisions are finalized – and even to fill this time with reminders of the firm’s ethical values,” he suggested.

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