PART III of V
Is the way Americans think about ethics—and even ethics codes themselves—the real problem?
Personal and professional experiences have allowed me to explore that question in detail. I’ve met and spoken to people associated with shocking financial scandals. Doing so has given me a perspective that I never would have imagined. It has made me think that everything we’re doing to protect ourselves from these scandals may actually be making us less safe than ever.
During the 1970s, social psychologist Lee Ross coined the term “fundamental attribution error” to explain the self-serving bias that causes us to see what we do as a reaction to our environment but what someone else does as a reflection of their character. Americans have a particularly damaging strain of this bias. Ross’s experiments proved that we focus so much on personality characteristics and individual responsibility that we dismiss the critical importance of context and situations when determining causes of behavior. The study of corporate crime is an excellent example of this concept, with almost all discussions centering on the criminal, and not the situation and events preceding the crime.
In a classic psychology study on cheating, researchers at Columbia University examined the behavior of 11,000 schoolchildren between the ages of eight and sixteen over a five-year period. The children would cheat for different reasons at different times, with no reliable way to tell when cheating would occur. The researchers concluded that “even slight changes in the situation affect individual behavior in unpredictable ways.” The study found what many other studies in social psychology and criminology have found—the correlation between what anyone will do under two different situations is “lower than would be required for an accurate prediction of individual behavior.” Still, Americans think they can predict who will commit crimes based on dispositional aspects or generalized situations.
Americans are terrible at recognizing context. This brings us back to my one exception in my research of 40 white collar criminals—the Asian-American I spoke to who understood the broader context of his actions. What surfaced in my research is supported in brain imaging studies involving Asian and American participants presented with pictures including different backgrounds. In the study, Asians saw the contextual differences while Americans seemed oblivious to them. When scenes changed and incongruent images were shown, Americans worked even harder to focus on the subject of the scene and ignore the background. Could this be the clue as to why my sole Asian-American subject could see the context of the moral aspects of his crime without reference to the law? Was his Asian identity enough to explain why his brain processed his crime differently from all the others?
Brain imaging technology also shows that when Americans think about whether they are honest, their brain activity is different than when they think about whether someone else is honest. This is not the case for a Chinese person. When a Chinese person thinks about whether they are honest, the brain activity is nearly the same as when they think about whether someone else is honest. Chinese people find it natural to focus on context and situations, not disposition. They do not experience the same fundamental attribution error. Genetic studies have noted genetic mutations that are believed to be co-evolving respective to American and Eastern Asian cultures that are related to these national belief structures.
In Part IV, we delve into how seemingly harmless small crimes escalate into something much larger and more damaging.