Could it be that expecting ethical or good behavior is just wishful thinking? Appeals to reason have raised useless arguments. Incentives cannot compete with the personal benefits and convenience one derives from an unethical act. Those who can afford are too willing to pay the fines and penalties. Similar to the myth of Sisyphus, these well-intentioned efforts are all absurd.
Four years ago, research introduced in the Harvard Business Review suggested that “adults are less likely to cheat when reminders of children, such as teddy bears and crayons, are present.” Half of the participants were either in a room with children’s toys or engaged in activities associated with children. Under a controlled environment, participants were asked to play classic psychology games. The objective of the games was to control how much money other people earned. And if they lied, they could possibly earn more. Surprisingly, the number of cheaters dropped by 20 percent when toys were placed near them, or when they were watching cartoon programs.
The researcher hypothesized that toys and children activities could have unconsciously activated ideas of goodness and purity that the participants opted not to pollute. According to her, people behave differently when they are around children. They tend to be careful of their behavior and choice of words. Similarly, they expect people around them to behave in the same way.
This year, Desai subjected another set of participants to a similar simulation. Published in the current issue of HBR, the results show that when a person displayed a virtuous or ethical quotation, others were less likely to ask him to do something unethical. Moreover, when a person was presented with a similar quote, he was more likely to be truthful.
Apparently, persons who display a moral quotation or symbol are perceived as “pure.” Asking them to do unethical things may be construed as inappropriate and offensive. Others will not bother asking, thinking that it will be refused, anyway.
Questions have been raised over the seeming quackery of both claims. Both researches were laboratory experiments conducted in controlled environments. In other words, the quest was to find out: Is this how people really behave in the real world?
A separate study has shown that companies having five or more day-care centers within a 2-mile proximity increasingly give to charity. The study did not conclude if the behavior was triggered by the presence of the day-care centers. However, the correlation was evident. In India, at least, people who wore or displayed religious symbols were “less likely to be asked to do something shady.” In a way, moral or ethical symbols are signals that one is a good person. Chances of being asked to do bad things are reduced.
The intention of both studies is not to test good or ethical behavior. Rather, both tests seek to know how symbols of these behaviors are perceived by others.
Would the mere presence of stuffed toys, dolls, and crayons change adult behavior? Would placing pictures of children in an office environment encourage employees to behave better? Should we hold short Scripture reading sessions regularly? Should we display ethical quotes prominently in work places?
There is more than one explanation for bad behavior. There are a thousand and one ways to encourage good behavior. Perhaps the simplest explanation is the best one. Perhaps the best way is as simple as a nursery rhyme.
Real Carpio So lectures on strategic and human resource management at the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.