The Power of Pledges

During my studies I earned money with many, many different jobs: I worked as a waitress, cleaning lady, translator, telephone receptionist, secretary, babysitter, Christmas tree trimmer, sales assistant…

One summer I was working as a postwoman. A very interesting experience. It is incredible how much you learn about people just by observing what kind of mail they get. For example: There was one young lady on my round that received a decorated letter by a man almost every day. I was surprised. It is very unusual that guys write so many letters. When I looked at the sender, I realized that this man was writing these letters from jail. That explained it!

I had to deliver special letters where the recipients had to sign a receipt, because they had to appear at court. So I knew that they were in some kind of legal trouble. I brought grandmothers their pension money. Some of them were so happy when the money arrived that they even invited me for coffee and told me about their lives.

Of course, as a postman, if you are very curious or somebody corrupted you, you might even be tempted to open letters…That is why I had to swear to respect the privacy of correspondence the very first day of my job as a postwoman. I remember this event very vividly: I can still see and feel myself sitting in this sober office where a colleague explained the importance of the privacy of correspondence to me and I had to read a pledge and swear that I would always protect people’s private information.

Until today I am very strict about not opening other people letters. So from my personal experience I can confirm that pledging can be a quite powerful tool to enforce ethical behavior.

We find this idea of committing professionals to a certain ethical standard by pledging in many professions: medical doctors, lawyers, auditors. And recently pledging became also the objects of study by behavioral economists like Dan Ariely.  He conducted a series of studies where participants had the opportunity to cheat. What he found out is that most people cheat a little bit and only very few cheated a lot. His explanation for this behavior is that most people want to profit from the cheating, but at the same time they do not cheat that much, because they also want to feel good about themselves. Ariely calls the degree to which we are ready to cheat the fudge factor.

Than he experimented with all kinds of conditions that would increase or decrease the fudge factor. E.g. cheating increased very much if people were paid in tokens that were later exchanged into money. Obviously cheating does not feel so bad if we are able to remove it just one little step from money and thus making it more abstract. Obviously it does make a difference in peoples’ minds if we steal a pencil form the office or if we steal the same amount of cash a pencil would cost.

People also tend to cheat more if they observe others that are part of their in-group who are cheating. This gives them a justification: “Well, if everybody is doing it…!” Consequently, it comes as no surprise that Ariely also found out, that very creative people tend to cheat more, because they are more inventive in finding convincing justifications for their dishonest behavior.

This gives us a very compelling psychological explanation for what had happened in the financial crisis: Very smart and creative people found convincing justifications for selling highly abstract financial products that were far, far away from real cash and they all knew that everybody was doing it (social proof).

On the other hand virtually not cheating occurred during Ariely’s experiments if people had to try to remember the Ten Commandments just before they were tempted to cheat. Here it did not even matter whether they were Christians or not, or whether they managed to remember all Ten Commandments. It worked also for atheist and some participants even invented new commandments.

It also helped if participants had to sign an honor pledge at the beginning of the experiment.

This shows that introducing moral reminders just before people might be tempted to cheat is the best point of intervention if you want to prevent cheating.

At BSL we introduced pledges to keep students from cheating in exams.

And also in business ethics and management studies there has been the request to introduce a Hippocratic Oath for managers for quite some time (It’s Time to Make Management a True Profession by Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria, HBR October 2008).

After all, managers are the trustees of society’s economic resources. Thus having them swear that they will give their best to earn this trust, is even more important than committing postmen to the protection of the privacy of correspondence.

Dr. Bettina Palazzo, Professor at BSL


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