Tiger: His Ethics and Ours

In another of those seemingly endless notes and columns about Tiger
Woods sexual escapades, a Wall Street Journal editor commented on an
airport ad that featured Tiger on the golf course, staring down a
chasm, searching for something he lost, presumably a golf ball.  The
caption read, “It’s what you do next that counts.”  That, of course, is
one of those ads that will be quickly disappearing, and not liable to
appear again.  That was the same day that Tiger had announced his break
from professional golf to “work on his life game a bit and to recover
from the damage caused by his ‘infidelities.'”


Those of us who have long periods in the public eye have to learn to
manage the “opportunities presented,” or risk damage to relationships
and the reputation that are important to us.  As a counseling
professional, I learned early on that it was important to occasionally
and verbally set boundaries for the opposite sex, and on a few
occasions set them for the same sex.  I have a strong view of marriage
as a covenanted relationship and have always intended to keep them, and
have done so for more than 50 years.  By a covenanted relationship, I
refer to solemn promises to keep relationships that a couple have
agreed to, and to avoid other relationships. 

But all of us have our own emotional and hormonal urges, and many of
us are in the public spotlight, at least partially because of our
narcissistic orientation to relationships–a perfect setup for various
escapades.  Whether it’s Letterman, Tiger, or even Clinton, none of
this stuff ever comes as a surprise.  Ethically, I believe the Catholic
theology that argues that emotional attraction is one thing and taking
action is another, is spot on.  Still, this leaves me asking whether
some people have ever had any training in managing their hormones. 

I have a rich memory of a young relative, a seemingly bright high
school senior who spent nearly a semester with us because of her family
difficulties.  After observing her for a couple weeks, I commented to
my wife about the fact that I had yet to see our new resident make a
decision on anything but the state of her glands.  My brilliantly
analytical wife, in her unsubtle fashion, commented that it had taken
her well-educated husband quite a while to notice the obvious.  We make
decisions for a lot of reasons, many of which are not at all rational.

That, however, is a perfect segue for me to point out that we are
not nearly as rational nor as ethical as we like to think. Extensive
research by Max Bazerman and his colleagues at Northwestern and Harvard
focus on the “whys.”  People typically predict that they will behave
more ethically than they actually do.  Recent research shows without a
shadow of a doubt that all of us have an innate tendency to engage in
self-deception around our own ethical behavior.  That’s one of the
reasons that that I look down my nose pretty quickly at the
self-righteous of any stripe. 

In one abstract, Bazerman and colleagues summarize the research in this language:  People
predict that they will behave more ethically than they actually do, and
when evaluating past (un)ethical behavior, they believe they behaved
more ethically than they actually did.  

In one especially illuminating piece of research on managerial decision making, Bazerman and colleagues show
that there are four very important and related sources of unintentional
unethical decision making.  But one source is especially illuminating
in the decision making process:  the bias that emerges from unconscious
beliefs.  The research shows that people commonly and persistently
judge according to unconscious stereotypes and attitudes, or what the
research colleagues call “implicit prejudice.”  The research goes on to
show that even those who are free from conscious prejudice may still
harbor bias and act accordingly.  Exposed
to images that justapose black men and violence, portray women as sex
objects, imply that the physically disabled are mentally weak and the
poor are lazy, even the most consciously unbiased person is bound to
make biased associations.  These associations play out in the workplace
just as they do anywhere else.

a gloss on Greenspan’s comments about the stock market and irrational
exuberance, and his amusing (to me, at least) and disastrous failure to
understand the irrational nature of the human psyche, bias is just one
implicit driver of irrational decision making.
 It demands that we abandon our faith in our own objectivity.  You can check out a previous post on business ethics here.  On other occasions, I’ll add to this brief discussion of the irrational drivers of our decision making.  Stay tuned.

For Max Bazerman and colleagues’ research, go here.  You can also pull up the full working paper at that location.

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