Quant Thinking May Weaken Ethics

BUSINESS SCHOOLS THAT emphasize quantitative approaches to leadership and decision making in their curricula could be setting up their graduates to be more selfish and less ethical in the workplace.
Quant Thinking May Weaken Ethics

That’s according to a study by J. Keith Murnighan, professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management; Long Wang, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the City University of Hong Kong; and Chen-Bo Zhong, associate professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in Canada.

The researchers conducted several experiments using two classic exercises from game theory. In the “dictator game,” participants can give away or keep all of a set amount of money. In the “ultimatum game,” participants must offer some or all of the money to a stranger, keeping the remainder only if the stranger accepts their offer; in addition, only they know the amount and can lie about it if they choose.

In one experiment, one group of participants read a quantitative tutorial on the business concept of net present value before playing the game; another read a historical overview of the industrial revolution. Those in the first group offered less money and were more likely to lie than those in the second. The researchers acknowledge that quantitative analysis has its place, but that an overemphasis on that skill could have negative consequences. “If you’re a CEO of a company where everyone approaches every decision with only this kind of analysis, our research suggests that the likelihood of someone acting unethically increases,” says Murnighan in a July article in Kellogg Insight. The act of quantifying blocks aspects of a person’s ethical awareness, such as guilt, honesty, and fair play, he explains.

In a second experiment, the researchers “reactivated” that awareness. This time, participants who read the quantitative tutorial also reviewed a set of family photographs before playing the dictator game. Although they still exhibited dishonest and selfish behavior, they did so to a lesser extent than those in the previous experiment who had not viewed the photographs.

Given these findings, the trio would like to see business curricula put greater emphasis on maximizing value for shareholders rather than on maximizing profits, so that students learn to take a long-term view and maintain their awareness of the social consequences of their actions.

“Maximizing value is still self-interested, but it takes into account the fact that other people and their organizations are also relevant,” says Murnighan in Kellogg Insight. “A value-maximizing approach expands the pie so that there’s more to go around for yourself and for others.”

“The Social and Ethical Consequences of a Calculative Mindset” appears in the September issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.