What causes immoral behavior

University of Cologne

Moral behavior in the economy - after the news about the “Dieselgate”, the VW emissions scandal, this may sound like a contradiction in terms. When millions are at stake, isn't it worth the little moral negligence? Professor Dr. Bernd Irlenbusch from the Chair of Corporate Development and Business Ethics denies this, because immoral behavior creates competitive disadvantages in the long term. In the Design and Behavior research group funded by the DFG, he researches what leads to immoral behavior. “At the moment a swing of the pendulum can be observed. Companies seem to recognize that they do better with moral standards, ”says Irlenbusch.

When Martin Winterkorn had to resign from the post of Chairman of the Board of Management of VW AG in November 2014, it was not possible to foresee the damage that had occurred. Now, a year after the emissions scandal began, the end of the claims for damages or state penalties has not yet been reached and the damage to the company's image is enormous. How did it come about that in large companies, which have many instances of internal control, manipulations of this kind are not noticed, are not prevented or punished?

Professor Dr. Bernd Irlenbusch researches the importance of ethics for economic ventures, he says: "In the long term, it is better if you adhere to certain moral standards." There are two reasons for this: On the one hand, you are better off with customers, employees and other stakeholders when one is considered moral. You are selling a more moral product, so to speak, and there are many customers who make sure that minimum moral standards are adhered to. That is the reputation effect. It works not only for customers but also for employees. They, too, have become very sensitive to working for a company that meets moral standards. On the other hand, the laws are becoming ever stricter, some of which demand high penalties.

"Although general statements are difficult to make here, this combination of loss of reputation and the threat of punishment makes it appear doubtful whether one really benefits from immoral behavior in the long term," says the scientist.

The Volkswagen case

Irlenbusch cites Volkswagen AG as an example: “VW had the ambitious goal of becoming the world's number 1 automobile manufacturer. This was also passed on to the employees. Goals and monetary incentives determine behavior. But if goals are unrealistic or very difficult to achieve, but are linked to monetary incentives, then you still want to achieve the goal. ”As part of this goal, the engineers were given the task of developing an engine that was inexpensive and had few emissions, so that it can be sold on the American market. But the engineers discovered during their development: With the cost targets, it is impossible to produce an engine that complies with the specified emission values. What had to be done, how could the goal still be achieved? From the company's perspective, the way out via the manipulating software ensured that the goals would be achieved - but at the price that one was no longer on the safe ground of legality. "Goals that are difficult to achieve can mean that employees no longer know how to help themselves other than to act immorally," summarizes Irlenbusch. "Goals and bonuses play a big role in immoral behavior."

Down on the slide of immorality

The glossing over of consumption and emissions values ​​has a long tradition at all car companies. This was ensured with special conditions when measuring, such as thin tires or special lubricants. “If you come out of this tradition,” explains the economist, “then it seems like a moral gray area to use software to manipulate emissions. This is just an additional means of depicting it more beautifully than it is. ”The researchers call the phenomenon the slippery slope, the inclined moral plane. With small steps you slide more and more into the immoral. The fatal thing about it is that it is difficult to notice these small steps in oneself and also in others: “It's just a little different from the behavior I showed yesterday. And if it was okay yesterday, then almost the same behavior is okay today. This behavior is then again taken as a moral standard, and one slips deeper and deeper with the moral ideas in small steps. All in all, over time, unnoticed, one has gone a big step too far. "


The moral account

Another effect that causes immoral behavior is what is known as moral licensing. “When people think that they are particularly moral, then they tend to believe that they can take things out of their way and be a little immoral. If you have a strong plus on your moral account, then you can take off something. ”Irlenbusch believes that this could also have played a role at VW. “In the 2015 sustainability report, VW describes all the good things they do for the environment. That's also true, they attached great importance to environmental protection and always tried to produce fewer emissions. ”The group set itself the goal of being the most environmentally friendly car company in the world by 2018. "If you have internalized 'We are very good at environmental protection", then it is also plausible if the engineers thought:' We are so good at environmental protection, we can now take something out of this in this emergency situation "."

There are more effects. For example, the Strategic Ignorance, which runs under the motto “Sometimes you don't want to know things exactly”. “For example, when a boss says, 'You have to work it out somehow. I don't even want to know exactly how you do it. The main thing is that you make it ‘.” The supervisor no longer feels responsible because he doesn't officially know anything about it; nevertheless he gave the order. The employees, on the other hand, have received an order. “This is a diffusion of responsibility between the hierarchical levels. Nobody feels responsible anymore, ”says the researcher.


Be a dictator with a fig leaf

The Cologne scientists are investigating the conditions under which people manage to behave more morally. This analysis is intended to identify systematic framework conditions in which it is easier. To this end, the behavioral economists design experiments that simulate typical human behavior. “We are currently investigating the influence of fig leaves”, is how Irlenbusch describes his current studies with a wink. In the experiment, he and his colleagues use the so-called dictator game, in which one of two people mimes the dictator. The dictator may distribute ten euros - either five euros for each or nine for himself and one euro for the other. The game is anonymous. First of all, the result is astonishing: Two out of three participants opt for the fair variant.

“We have now examined the extent to which excuses - the fig leaves - determine people's behavior. In order to provide the dictator with such a fig leaf, the experimenters put a coin in the booth: on one side it read 5: 5, on the other 9: 1. He could toss this coin to make a decision, but he didn't have to. “Afterwards, a great many participants said that they had used the coins. We found that almost everyone who used the coin voted 9: 1. For statistical reasons, ren can. “We are currently investigating the influence of fig leaves”, is how Irlenbusch describes his current studies with a wink. In the experiment, he and his colleagues use the so-called dictator game, in which one of two people mimes the dictator. The dictator may distribute ten euros - either five euros for each or nine for himself and one euro for the other. The game is anonymous. First of all, the result is astonishing: Two out of three participants opt for the fair variant. “We have now examined the extent to which excuses - the fig leaves - determine people's behavior. In order to provide the dictator with such a fig leaf, the experimenters put a coin in the booth: on one side it read 5: 5, on the other 9: 1. He could toss this coin to make a decision, but he didn't have to. “Afterwards, a great many participants said that they had used the coins. We found that almost everyone who used the coin voted 9: 1. For statistical reasons this cannot be the truth. About the same number of decisions should have been made for one or the other choice. "

So the dictators used the fig leaf to manipulate the outcome. this is not true. About the same number of decisions should have been made for one or the other choice. ”So the dictators used the fig leaf to manipulate the result. “The ability to delegate responsibility for a decision to someone else or something else often leads to unfair behavior,” Irlenbusch concludes.

Change corporate culture

Once they know the mechanisms, managers should consider how to prevent them. Take the slippery slope, for example: In order to prevent the gradual decline, it is advisable to apply very strict moral rules that punish even minor moral violations, according to Irlenbusch. In the case of moral licensing, on the other hand, the attitude “we are very good” is rather harmful. “I think the attitude 'We can get even better' would reduce the taking off from the moral account.” In general, a lot depends on the corporate culture, which also includes many social norms. "These behavioral norms are often more behavior-determining than one's own moral norms."

Research on such social norms and how they can be changed in the company is still in its infancy, according to Irlenbusch. But one thing is essential: “You should try to make it clear to employees that if something immoral happens in the company, it is almost always harmful to the company. If the employees internalize this, there is hope that social norms that are in line with their own moral norms will gain the upper hand. "