Nameless Harmless = Blameless: When Seemingly Irrelevant Factors Influence Judgment of (Un)ethical Behavior

39 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2008 Last revised: 14 Apr 2013

See all articles by Francesca Gino

Francesca Gino

Harvard University - Business School (HBS)

Lisa L. Shu

Harvard University - Business School (HBS); Harvard University - Department of Psychology; Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

Max H. Bazerman

Harvard Business School - Negotiations, Organizations and Markets Unit

Date Written: October 27, 2008

Abstract

People often make judgments about the ethicality of others’ behaviors and then decide how harshly to punish such behaviors. When they make these judgments and decisions, sometimes the victims of the unethical behavior are identifiable, and sometimes they are not. In addition, in our uncertain world, sometimes an unethical action causes harm, and sometimes it does not. We argue that a rational assessment of ethicality should not depend on the identifiability of the victim of wrongdoing or the actual harm caused if the judge and the decision maker have the same information. Yet in five laboratory studies, we show that these factors have a systematic effect on how people judge the ethicality of the perpetrator of an unethical action. Our studies show that people judge behavior as more unethical when (1) identifiable versus unidentifiable victims are involved and (2) the behavior leads to a negative rather than a positive outcome. We also find that people’s willingness to punish wrongdoers is consistent with their judgments, and we offer preliminary evidence on how to reduce these biases.

Keywords: ethics, identifiability, judgment, outcome bias, unethical behavior

Suggested Citation

Gino, Francesca and Shu, Lisa L. and Bazerman, Max H., Nameless Harmless = Blameless: When Seemingly Irrelevant Factors Influence Judgment of (Un)ethical Behavior (October 27, 2008). Harvard Business School NOM Working Paper No. 09-020, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1238661 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1238661

Francesca Gino

Harvard University - Business School (HBS) ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Lisa L. Shu

Harvard University - Business School (HBS) ( email )

Baker Library 444C
Soldiers Field Road
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Harvard University - Department of Psychology ( email )

William James Hall 260
33 Kirkland Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics ( email )

124 Mount Auburn Street
Suite 520N
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Max H. Bazerman (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School - Negotiations, Organizations and Markets Unit ( email )

Soldiers Field
Boston, MA 02163
United States
617-495-6429 (Phone)
617-496-4191 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.people.hbs.edu/mbazerman

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Downloads
277
Abstract Views
2,897
Rank
209,371
PlumX Metrics