Thesis Literature Review (Ch.1): PSYCHOLOGICAL BASIS OF MORALITY

2011/02/24 § 3 Comments


Introduction: Ethics and morale in a Business context and the effect of honor codes






4.1.1 The self in the regulation of behaviour
The concept of the psychological self, self-consciousness or the self-concept, i.e. the way people view and perceive themselves, is a prerequisite in understanding the motivational- and other forces that move the individual to either behave ethical or unethical (Mazar, Amir et al. 2008).

The self-concept explains the reflections and interpretations of on-going behaviour. But most importantly it is today being viewed as dynamic and adjustable in its response to challenges from the social environment (Markus and Wurf 1987). Identity is viewed as something possessing hierarchies, networks or spaces, including personal characteristics’, feelings, roles and social status (Burke 1980). The self-concept consists of self-representations, i.e ways in which the self presents itself to the outer world. Some self-representations may be based on the actual self or images of the self, as it would like to appear (Stryker 2007).

The concepts can be at odds with each other, in so-called self-discrepancy (Higgins 1987). Not all self-representations are subject to conscious reflection, if the are they are called self-conceptions (Markus and Wurf 1987). Self-representations may be actively repressed or altered, as simple example being to substitute a sad mood with a happy memory (Josephson, Singer et al. 1996).

While it is an issue of debate what the origins of self-concepts are precisely, it can generally be agreed upon that the source include psychological reactions to a person watching their own actions and reactions to cognitions, emotions and motivations (Markus and Wurf 1987). At this point we are forced to expand on the realm of the psychology of the self and take the wider surrounding into account, which is the social environment.

Apparently there are two directions in the relationship between the individual and its social surrounding. From the social perspective of the surrounding the individual has internalized social roles through which it interacts with others, which is denominated identity theory (Stryker 2007; Wikipedia 2011).

From the psychological point of view of the individual the individual has inherited traits, which are rather stable, individual and shape a persons disposition and behaviour, and is called personality theory (Wikipedia 2011). Naturally, these concepts have large overlaps (Stryker 2007).

In the interaction with its surrounding the individual seeks to control certain behaviours, which is known as self-regulation (Markus and Wurf 1987). Self-regulation does occur also in-group contexts’ when individuals aim at regulating their behaviour in accordance to their perceived social identity (Sassenberg and Woltin 2008).

The believe in the ability, and the willingness to perform an activity contribute to what has been termed self-efficacy (Albert and Edwin 2009). Self-efficacy is being motivated or channelled by desires and needs, some of which may be the cause of dishonesty (Markus and Wurf 1987).

4.1.2 Causes for dishonest behaviour
Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and economist such as Adam Smith have argued that behaving in line with moral expectations may merely be the result of a cost-benefit analysis, weighing desires against the costs of fulfilling them, an idea very much based on the concept of homo economicus (Smith and Cannan 1981; Nina, Dan et al. 2010). The idea is, that people are only honest to the extend that a planned trade-off favours honesty (Hechter 1990). In accordance to this economic model ethical behaviour is for example influenced by external incentives, the bigger the reward that can be derived from being dishonest the greater the incentive for dishonest behaviour (Lewicki 1983).

Another model concentrates on internal reward, felt due to the following of social norms (Joseph, Robert et al. 2009). There is evidence from game theory that people act not only in terms of selfish motives but also in accordance with considerations regarding social utility and the care for others’ as outcome (Ernst and Urs 2003; Fehr and Fischbacher 2004). In fact, brain-imaging studies have shown that people who followed moral conventions felt an intense reward. The intensity of the reward-feeling equalled that of other reward triggers, such as monetary gain (de Quervain Dominique, Fischbacher et al. 2004).

Interestingly, game theory also showed that people evaluate their counterparts’ situation when deciding to be dishonest or not. It has been demonstrated that people will be more prone to dishonesty in a game for personal gain, when their counterpart is wealthier than they themselves (Gneezy 2005). Apparently these internal reward mechanisms vary between different cultures and are shaped by the economic characteristics of the societies people live in, in other words socialization is key for altruistic behaviour (Joseph, Robert et al. 2009).

Additionally to these economic and sociological factor that influence human honesty behaviour, also personality traits, situational factors, and other individual factors contribute to the decision for or against dishonesty (Lewicki 1983). An example for a situational factor is the certainty of information. Studies have shown that uncertainty of information can be an inducing factor for dishonesty. For example, a manager may have an incentive to underreport the true dimension of costs for renovation of a house in sales negotiations, justifying the lie with the uncertainty of this information (Schweitzer and Hsee 2002).

4.1.3 Moral disengagement and immoral behaviour

Generally people strive to behave morally, even if they fail frequently (Aquino and Reed 2002). If their self-concept of being a moral individual is at odds with their immoral behaviour individuals may resort to self-deception in order to resolve the discrepancy (Trivers 2000) or disengage from their moral identity or their moral convictions (Bandura, Barbaranelli et al. 1996).

Self-deception is a common psychological strategy in aligning believes with reality. For example, people frequently maintain believes about themselves that are not in accordance with reality. More than 50% of people believe for instance that they are more intelligent than the average, a view that clearly violates logic (Alicke, Klotz et al. 1995). In order to align the internal self-concept with the outer reality people resort to self-deception to reduce this so-called psychological dissonance (Elliot and Devine 1994).

Self-deception has been considered an important psychological factor in the decision in favour of unethical behaviour (David M. Messick 2001; Tenbrunsel and Messick 2004). People also apply self-deception unconsciously to convince themselves of certain motives, hiding their true intention even to themselves (Anderson, Cohen et al. 2000; Dodson 2001). In this case of real self-deception there are no cues, such as increased pupil size, lip pressing and similar, to an observer to discern the dishonesty (Morris 2004).

As mentioned, another strategy of dealing with is cognitive dissonance is the process of emotionally distancing oneself from ones unethical behaviour, which has been termed “moral disengagement”. Moral disengagement means the separation of moral reactions from inhumane conduct and the disabling of mechanisms of self-condemnation (Bandura, Barbaranelli et al. 1996). It has been suggested that as a result of dishonest behaviour a person may disengage even further from moral behaviour, forgetting moral rules, and leading to a downward spiral (Shu Lisa, Gino et al. 2011).

A facet of moral disengagement is a self-justification process (Bandura, Caprara et al. 2001). The uncertainty of information may be used as the basis for the justification of dishonesty. The act of lying may then be justified by the fact that the information available is not clear cut, or reliable (Schweitzer and Hsee 2002). This act of conscious self-deception differs from the previously mentioned self-deception in that the perpetrator is aware of the betrayal, but chooses to justify (White, Bandura et al. 2009). An example that describes it well is the moral disengagement process that prison personnel must undergo in order to be able to carry out the death penalty or prisoners (Osofsky, Bandura et al. 2005).

An interesting example for self-deception and so-called can be found in a study by Shu et al. In the study students were given a chance to cheat in an exam after they had read a code of honour. The students were tested for their moral disengagement and also for how much information from the code they remembered. Interestingly, the students that had cheated remembered less of the code than the students that decided to be honest. The authors argue that this is “strategic forgetting” that prevents dissonance (Shu Lisa, Gino et al. 2011).

Bandura defines a number of strategies for moral disengagement that are also the basis for his test of moral-disengagement, which is described in more detail in a later chapter. (Bandura 2002). Briefly, these are:

• Moral justification: Portraying an act as socially worthy cause
• Euphemistic labelling: Sanitized language disguises immoral acts
• Advantageous comparison: Comparing immoral act against seemingly worse alternative
• Displacement of responsibility: Following the dictate of a higher authority
• Diffusion of responsibility: Division of labour as social diffusion
• Disregard of distortion of consequences: Argumentative minimisation of the actual harm caused
• Dehumanisation: Immoral acts against strangers or animals are psychological easier to carry out
• Attribution of blame: Portraying oneself as the victim of others or circumstances

Previous studies have shown that moral disengagement in boys is larger than in girls, and positively correlated with aggression, social competence, and in some cases delinquency, but unrelated with socioeconomic status or age (Bandura, Barbaranelli et al. 1996). Interestingly, it also has been shown that the acceptance of moral disengagement is higher in males and increases with age (Obermann 2011).

–> Read previous chapter: Thesis Background: Ethics and ethical business codes of conduct


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