Why Nothing Will Change Until We Think Differently
Part IV 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.
Caught In a Trap
If most crimes of fraud start small and without evil intent, how do they escalate to such surprising magnitude? In perhaps the strangest and most difficult to understand phenomena that I encountered during my research, all of the criminals I interviewed described a feeling of being “trapped” in their crime. They all reported an overwhelming feeling that they could somehow make the problem better. They reported that they would take whatever actions necessary to “get through another day.”
One of my interviewees, convicted due to his association with a $350 million international Ponzi scheme, captured the thoughts of many of the convicted criminals when he commented, “You wake up every day and you have three choices, and you don’t like any of them.” Comments by Bernie Madoff saying that he wished he had been caught earlier, and amazed that he wasn’t, have an eerie echo in light of these findings.
When we invest time, effort, or money into something, a strange phenomenon occurs called “entrapment in escalation.” The more time or energy we invest in something, the more we are motivated to justify our behaviors and compelled to invest even more to see it through. Studies show that, contrary to rational thought, when we have invested even a small effort in something, we feel committed to the outcome, and will follow that to ridiculous lengths. We will follow through, even if a loss is imminent, as though we can’t stop ourselves.
Don’t Follow Your Conscience; Follow the Leader
In my study, 70% of the convicted felons reported that their crimes required the cooperation of others, sometimes even auditors or enforcement officials. Most reported that recruiting these individuals was effortless, even when it seemed obvious that the actions would be unethical. Why does this happen? Studies show that Americans respond to dominance. We are hardwired to follow our leaders and to follow our group and its rules.
Research comparing values in different countries about priorities of following the group or personal conscience are telling. Americans frequently favor following the rules of their group over their own conscience. Americans are significantly more likely than Europeans to say they should follow the orders of their superiors, even if it is against their conscience. In 1991, the International Social Survey Programme asked respondents from nine different nations if they agreed that “right and wrong should be a matter of personal conscience.” Almost 90% of Austrians agreed with the statement, but Americans nearly tied for last with only 47% agreeing with the statement. The more recent 2006 survey asked, “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions in which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” At 45%, Americans were the least likely to say that people should on occasion follow their consciences.
If we’ve been conditioned to follow our leaders and not our consciences, what does that mean when it comes to codes of ethics? Does having more rules make us more inclined to be ethical, or less? Part V , the conclusion to this series, answers that question.