With the royal commissions rolled out across the Australian banking industry and the disability and aged care sectors, it has left many wondering how so many people could become embroiled in so much unethical behaviour? Faced with case after case of substandard practice, often with significant and tangible implications for customers and consumers, it has no doubt led some to question human nature. Perhaps ironically, however, it is exactly human nature writ large which provides some of the answers.

While there are indeed those whose actions are committed with full awareness of unethical consequences, there are also many whose behaviour may be better classified as arising from ethical oversights. This does not mean that people should not be held accountable for their behaviour – they should, and they need to be – but it does change how we might understand the causes of unethical behaviour, and therefore how to better intervene in the future.

What is ethical fading?

Ethical fading refers to the limited capacity that we have, as humans, to maintain our focus on all elements of any given problem. This has been well-illustrated by the now famous “invisible gorilla” experiment which shows that when asked to focus their attention on one aspect of the situation (counting how many times a basketball gets passed between a group of players) many people don’t even notice a person wearing a gorilla costume walking right into the centre of the players and beating their chest before walking out of the camera shot again (you can see it for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo).

The fact is that we have a limited capacity to process information, and when we become focused on one element of a problem or situation, it is all too easy for us to us to not even see other factors that may be important.

There are several reasons that we might become focused on a particular aspect of a situation and in turn miss out on seeing it from an ethical perspective. One reason may have to do with incentive structures, organizational KPIs and performance metrics, or managerial goals. For instance, when an organization becomes focused on shareholder value and incentivises employees towards sales targets, it also increases risk factors around whether people are likely to be aware of vulnerable customers or the customer value of products. Employees may feel they are “doing the right thing” by hitting sales targets, all the while not maintaining an equal awareness of whether they are “doing the right thing” by their customers.

Another reason may have to do with the fundamental tendency for humans to be self-interested. From this perspective, people may fail to see the ethical dimension to a problem when their self-interest gets in the way. For example, a manager who has a high need to ‘get things just right’ might not see clearly that a tendency to micro-manage their employees is undermining the sense they are being treated with dignity and respect.

How can we prevent ethics from fading?

There is no quick fix to ethical fading. It is part of our fallibility as humans. Yet, there are some things we can do the mitigate the extent to which it is likely to play a role in our important decisions. Here are three key strategies:

1) Slow down. We make over 200 decisions per day, and for this we need to rely on our System 1 thinking (relatively automatic, intuitive, and fast). For important ethical decisions, however, we need to slow down and use System 2 thinking (reflective, deliberate, effortful) in order to see the problem more clearly and from different perspectives

2) Remind and reframe. Providing cues at critical points in a decision-making process can increase the salience of the ethical dimensions of a problem and keep them in focus. Reframing a problem by starting with the ethical implications first, rather than the financial or productivity imperatives can ensure that ethics do not fade from view.

3) Avoid euphemisms. Is it cooking the books or 'creative accounting?' Firing or 'right-sizing?' ‘Aggressive' accounting practices or illegal ones. ‘Externalities’ or environmental harm? ‘Collateral damage’ or civilian deaths. Be aware when euphemisms creep into language, allowing the ethical implications to subtly slip from view.  

If you are interested in learning more about how you can use behavioural ethics as an early intervention tool in your workplace, and how to build the ethical decision-making capabilities of your staff, please contact brock@ethicsapplied.com.au or david@ethicsapplied.com.au (see www.ethicsapplied.com.au for more details)

Professor Brock Bastian


Professor Brock Bastian is an internationally acclaimed researcher, author, and speaker who has spent the last 15 years seeking to understand the psychology of ethical decision-making.

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