Professor Paul S. Goodman, Richard M. Cyert Professorship; professor of organizational psychology; director, Institute for Strategic Development; director, Center for the Management of Technology, reviews the research of Taya Cohen, assistant professor of organizational behavior & theory, addressing the question why people may be predisposed to engage in unethical behavior.
Fostering ethical behaviors is a widespread concern. In all sectors of our life – government, the workplace, social organizations, the family, and so on, ethical versus unethical behaviors affect our well-being. An important challenge is to understand why people choose to act in ethical or unethical ways. This understanding can enhance our ability to create environments that facilitate ethical decision making and inhibit unethical decision making.
The research of Taya Cohen, assistant professor of organizational behavior & theory, addresses the question why people may be predisposed to engage in unethical behavior. Her work focuses on the role of guilt proneness. This refers to the propensity to feel bad about one’s transgressions even when those acts are done in private. Guilt proneness is a personality trait rather than an emotional state. People who exhibit high guilt proneness should feel guilty about their unethical choices. Therefore, anticipating feelings about behaving unethically should constrain these choices. People who are low in guilt proneness, however, are more likely to engage in unethical activities since they do not anticipate feelings of guilt prior to the act.
Cohen initiated research in this area by building with her colleagues a measurement instrument (GASP – Guilt And Shame Proneness) to learn more about why people behave unethically. The instrument is designed to help us better understand how individual differences lead to unethical decisions. Across a series of studies, she found that people high in guilt proneness made fewer unethical business decisions, committed fewer deviant and antisocial behaviors and behaved more honestly when they negotiated and made economic decisions. Cohen and her colleagues verified these relationships with a sample of more than 800 American adults, as well as undergraduate and graduate students.
As she pursues this research, Cohen wants to understand the temporal consistency of guilt proneness over time. Is it a good predictor of behavior over time? Across situations? Does guilt proneness vary? Is guilt proneness part of a general personality trait or is it more situation-specific? A related question: what is the role of the workplace in activating and developing peoples’ proneness to guilt feelings and to engaging in unethical business decisions? Cohen’s plan is to test some of these questions with a worker population.
An imperative for all managers across organizations is to be vigilant about unethical behaviors. This research searches for an empirically-based explanation for why unethical behavior occurs. The challenge for Cohen, other researchers and managers is to first understand via strong empirical evidence the sources for ethical and unethical managerial decision making. These sources or causes are likely to be at the intersection between individual differences and the organizational context.