A selection of interesting articles we came across recently on ethical decision-making.

Mixed emotions in unethical decision making
Although prior work on ethical decision-making has examined the direct impact of magnitude of consequences as well as the direct impact of emotions on ethical judgments, the current research examines the interaction of these two constructs. Building on previous research finding disgust to have a varying impact on ethical judgments depending on the specific behavior being evaluated, these authors investigate how disgust, as well as happiness and sadness, moderates the effect of magnitude of consequences on an individual’s judgments of another person’s unethical behaviour.

Specifically, the authors propose and find that because disgust and happiness are both associated with more heuristic-based processing, they both lead to a stronger reliance on the magnitude of consequences when forming ethical judgments. In contrast, because sad and neutral emotional states are associated with more systematic processing, they both result in a weaker reliance on the magnitude of consequences. As such, the effect of magnitude of consequences on judgments of unethical behaviours is stronger when individuals making the judgments are experiencing disgust or happiness versus sadness or a neutral state.

This research shows that ethical judgment severity is contingent on individual-level factors, particularly the current emotional state being experienced by the individual, interacting with magnitude of consequences to impact the ethical decision-making process.

See: Karen Page Winterich, Andrea C. Morales and Vikas Mittal. 2015. Disgusted or Happy, It is not so Bad: Emotional Mini-Max in Unethical Judgments.
Journal of Business Ethics, 130(2), 343-360.


The empirical ethical decision-making literature reviewed
In business ethics, there is a large body of literature focusing on the conditions, factors, and influences in the ethical decision-making processes. This work builds upon the past critical reviews by updating and extending the literature review found in Craft’s (J Bus Ethics 117(2):221–259, 2013) study, extending her literature review to include a total of 141 articles. Since past reviews have focused on categorising results based upon various independent variables, these reviewers instead synthesise and look at the trends of these based upon the four ethical decision making categories: Awareness, Behaviour, Judgment, and Intention.

These authors focus on the moderation (30 studies) and mediation (23 studies) effects found within these studies and provide an in-depth analysis of future trends. Furthermore, they highlight key statistical and methodological concerns, outline overarching trends, and directions of future research in empirical ethical decision making.

See: Kevin Lehnert, Yung-hwal Park and Nitish Singh. 2015. Research Note and Review of the Empirical Ethical Decision-Making Literature: Boundary Conditions and Extensions.
Journal of Business Ethics, 129(1), 195-219.

There is hope: subconscious priming on ethical decisions
Research in the field of behavioural ethics has traditionally viewed ethical decision making as rational and deliberate. However, some recent research has proposed a dual process model of ethical decision making that has both conscious and subconscious components (Reynolds, 2006). David Welsh and Lisa Ordóñez extend current theory by using subconscious ethical and unethical priming to test the effects of subconscious processes on ethical behaviour through an automatic process of schema activation and implicit association.

Studies 1 and 2 extend self-concept maintenance theory (Mazar, Amir, & Ariely, 2008) by exploring the mediated process through which subconscious ethical and unethical primes trigger the activation of moral standards, thereby influencing categorization and subsequent responses to morally ambiguous situations.

Study 3 demonstrates that both subconscious ethical and unethical priming reduce dishonesty even when participants are unmonitored and are given difficult performance goals that previously have been shown to lead to unethical behaviour.

David T. Welsh and Lisa D. Ordóñez. 2014. Conscience without Cognition: The Effects of Subconscious Priming on Ethical Behavior.
Academy of Management Journal, 57(3), 723-742.


Comparative Analysis of Jones’ and Kelley’s Ethical Decision-Making Models
Yi-Ming Yu used structural equation modeling to verify the performance of the ethical decision-making models developed by Jones and by Kelley and Elm. A comparison showed that the Kelley and Elm decision model yielded the optimal degree of fit. The investigations conducted in this study indicated that moral intensities are not an objective, existing concept but rather the product of subjective perception influenced by organisational factors. In addition to directly influencing ethical decisions, organisational factors indirectly influence ethical decisions through moral intensities.

Read further in: Yi-Ming Yu. 2015. Comparative Analysis of Jones’ and Kelley’s Ethical Decision-Making Models.
Journal of Business Ethics, 130(3), 573-583.


Rhetoric & ethical decision making in business
Business managers regularly employ metaphorical violent rhetoric as a means of motivating their employees to action. While it might be effective to this end, research on violent media suggests that violent rhetoric might have other, less desirable consequences. This study examines how the use of metaphorical violent rhetoric by business managers impacts the ethical decision making of employees. We develop and test a model that explains how the use of violent rhetoric impacts employees’ willingness to break ethical standards, depending on the source of the rhetoric.

The results of two experiments suggest that the use of violent rhetoric by a CEO at a competing company increases employees’ willingness to engage in ethical violations while the use of violent rhetoric by employees’ own CEO decreases their willingness to engage in unethical behaviour. Furthermore, we find that participants who made less ethical decisions motivated by violent rhetoric used by a competitor’s CEO did not view their decisions as less ethical than the other participants in the experiments.

The results of these studies highlight potentially harmful unintended consequences of the use of violent rhetoric, providing knowledge that should be useful to managers and academics who want to increase employee motivation without increasing a willingness to engage in unethical behaviour.

The full paper is at: Joshua R. Gubler, Nathan P. Kalmoe and David A. Wood. 2015. Them’s Fightin’ Words: The Effects of Violent Rhetoric on Ethical Decision Making in Business.
Journal of Business Ethics, 130(3), 705-716.


Navigating theories of interpersonal and ethical cognitions to understand ethical decision-making
The literature on ethical decision-making is rooted in a cognitive perspective that emphasizes the role of moral judgment. Recent research in interpersonal dynamics, however, has suggested that ethics revolves around an individual’s perceptions and views of others. The authors draw from both literatures to propose and empirically examine a contingent model. They theorize that whether the individual relies on cognitions about the ethical issue or perceptions of others depends on the level of social consensus surrounding the issue.

The researchers test their hypotheses in three studies. Results suggest that not only does social consensus determine whether an individual relies on ethical cognitions about the issue or perceptions of others, but also that an individual’s view of self is an important moderator in these relationships. The authors conclude by considering implications of this research for theory and practice.

See: Lumina S. Albert, Scott J. Reynolds and Bulent Turan. 2015. Turning Inward or Focusing Out? Navigating Theories of Interpersonal and Ethical Cognitions to Understand Ethical Decision-Making.
Journal of Business Ethics, 130(2), 467-484.