Judy Shen, Langone MBA Class of 2014

Temptations. They can be hard to resist. I’m not talking about the kind where you resist having a double fudged chocolate cake. Rather, how do you stop yourself from cheating on an exam, in a relationship; insider trading; or taking extra change when the cashier hands you more than you should receive? Would your answers change if you could become invisible? Morals are a person’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do. We’ve all faced moral dilemmas. As MBA students, we may encounter even more situations in the future where we have to make personal and professional decisions based on our morals. Temptations can become hard to resist when we are conditioned to seek instant gratification right through our fingertips — obsessively checking our smart phones every two seconds. But before you give in, know that most, if not all of us, are capable of moral reasoning. Okay, you may be thinking if there are so many morally “capable” human beings, why do terrible tragedies inflicted by people never seem to end? Perhaps it’s appropriate to demystify how we formed our moral compass, why some people lack or have no morals, and how society and entities can encourage more moral behaviors.

So how did you acquire your morals? From your family, culture, religion, or personal experiences? Behavior development research shows that early development of moral reasoning stems from the capacity to have empathetic feelings for the distress of another or the inclination to comply with parental directions. Our moral values are also linked to the relationship we have with an attachment figure, which for most people, are our parents. Therefore, experiencing emotion empathically shows us that other people can suffer or enjoy just as we can, and that their suffering and joy are as important as our own. This belief is our motivation to try to make moral decisions that will alleviate others’ misery; without it, we would find it more difficult to decide to do things that will benefit others, especially if those things mean that we ourselves don’t get all the benefits we might otherwise reap.

Have you ever watched an episode of CSI or Law and Order and wonder how criminals can commit gruesome crimes? Some of these criminals are psychopaths — lacking empathy, remorse and conscience; glib and egocentric; always have a need for excitement yet do not take any responsibility; they lure you in with charm and false feelings, seeking self-gratification at the other person’s expense (if these characteristics sound anything like you, and if you are at all bothered, please seek professional advice from NYU’s Wellness Center which offers free counseling).

But not all psychopaths are criminals – they can be your boss, a good friend, or even the person who lures you in with their charm to buy a product, join a cult, or start a love affair. White-collar criminals also exhibit unusually high psychopathic tendencies when committing immoral acts at the expense of others. In fact, a study found that four percent of a sample of corporate managers met a clinical threshold for being labeled psychopaths, compared with one percent for the population at large. Remember, accounting fraud at Enron, rogue traders at big banks? My advice would be to stay vigilant of those who exhibit these behaviors and to not fall prey to their manipulative acts. And to prevent or deter people from committing serious immoral acts (depending on whether it is a violent or nonviolent crime) – the justice system should continue using punishment as a means to physically incapacitate, morally reform and intimidate from future crimes.

What if you see someone committing immoral acts on others, should you interfere? We know that people are naturally inclined to be more self-interested, and you may wonder, why should I care to interfere if it’s not benefiting or hurting me? While it’s not my place to preach what is the right thing to do, depending on the degree of harm (kill, lie, or steal) I would hope most people would rely on their moral compass to interfere (either indirectly through an official authority or directly if only you feel safe to do so). Because, god forbid, what if you were in the position where you need help and everyone else only acted on their own self-interest? Maybe altruistic reasons to help others will not trump self-interested reasons, but does the act of inaction make you immoral?

Although one can argue that a generalization can made that the MBA population is in and of itself “psychopathic” as we tend to be more self-interested in capitalistic opportunities than saving the world, that does not mean we have no empathy for others. Some of us give back to the community through volunteer service, open our homes to each other during Hurricane Sandy, and raise money for the Boston bombing victims. Having these empathic feelings and altruistic reasons to care for others gives us the capabilities for moral reasoning.

So you’re thinking – I follow the rules at work, I listen to my boss, I love my wife, okay – I’ve gotten a speeding ticket or two, but I never murdered anyone, therefore I am moral. But are you leading life out of obligations (psychologists refer to this as “legitimacy”), making decisions based on societal or social decisions and rules. Or are you abiding by moral values from personal choice. Research indicates moral values works best with legitimacy and personal standards. When you make decisions from personal choice and refer to social and justice system, it is more effective. At the end of the day, it’s important to understand why you make the choices you do; you have to want to do what you do. Having awareness of what motivates you to act the way you do will give you more conviction to act morally during difficult times.

Professor Jonathan Haidt, a distinguished professor who have recently joined the Stern faculty and is a social psychologist and expert in morality shared insights on incorporating morality in business at Social Enterprise Associations’ Back to School Alumni Event. Professor Haidt reminds us that in Plato’s Republic, Glaucon talks about the ring of Gyges. Gyges finds a magical ring of invisibility in which he goes on to seduce the queen, murders the king and takes control of the realm. If we can become invisible, would we stay on the right moral path? Professor Haidt says, “Probably unlikely.” But transparency can encourage more moral behavior. Now you wonder why many companies are emphasizing a more “open and transparent” workplace.

Research has also shown fairness can lead to more ethical behaviors. Therefore, companies that create a culture around fairness (compensation, managing practices, etc) and transparency, while focused on the bottom line can reap lucrative payoffs. One company that has been exemplary of this practice is Zappos. CEO Tony Hsieh has really solidified the right formula to fostering an open and fair culture based on the Happiness Framework (a concept in his recent book)– creating Pleasure, Passion, and Higher Purpose. Emotions are contagious — happy employees and happy workplace can create happy customers. If you’ve been their customer, you can probably attest to their superior customer service, generous free shipping and return policy.

In the end, companies can instill more ethical behaviors by making the workplace more transparent and fair; authority figures can monitor our streets to prevent crimes; universities can discourage cheating through tracking plagiarism with software systems. But there is something we can do as individuals to encourage moral behaviors in others. We may think there is high moral diversity among people, but research shows most people think there are moral truths. As social animals — we seek to be a part of a group, a team, working for a purpose. Therefore, one way to encourage moral behavior is to define “what it means” to be a moral person; academic institutions, businesses, influential figures, parents, and individuals should then model those behaviors. By being constantly exposed to more moral behaviors, we are more likely to mirror them. And when you catch yourself in a tempting situation, it never hurts to remind yourself of the golden rule of reciprocity. If you want to see the world be a more moral place, be the example you want to see.

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