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A Tripodal Approach To Supporting Values-based Decision-making—First Leg: Ethical Awareness

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By JoAnne Speers
June 13, 2022

This column is the second in a series of four. The first described the benefits of using a core values approach to helping public servants think about what the right thing to do is in any given situation.

This second column introduces the concept of behavioral ethics: the science of why well intended individuals fall short of their intentions to act consistently with their values. It argues that both ethics education and organizational leadership should encourage awareness of this science, as well as the need to be intentional in looking for the ethical (values) dimensions of situations.

Such awareness is the first leg of the three (the tripod) that supports core values-based decision-making.

The Science: Two Systems of Thinking

Although we as humans consider ourselves to be rational and analytic, research indicates that we have two ways (“systems”) of reacting to situations. As Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow suggests, sometimes we use “system 1 thinking,” which is fast, intuitive and emotional. Other times, we use “system 2 thinking,” which is slower, more effortful and deliberative.

A problem with system 1 decision-making is that it is prone to error. This includes decision-making relating to ethics. Bazerman and Tenbrunsel explain how and why in their book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It. A threshold error is being overconfident in our own ethicality (what behavioral psychologists call overconfidence bias). This causes us to not see the ethical dimensions of situations—hence the importance of encouraging learners to actively look for the values dimensions of situations.

What are other examples of cognitive biases that can interfere with our intentions to act consistently with our values?

  • We do things because we want to please our bosses (obedience to authority bias).
  • Sometimes we let things slide because we are not sure what to do (status quo bias).
  • We do things (or don’t do things) because we want to fit in (conformity bias).
  • We can be tempted to cover up small transgressions, even though a more deliberate analysis tells us that the consequences of covering up can be worse than the transgression (loss aversion bias).

Situational factors, including being overworked, can also contribute to a tendency to overlook the ethical dimensions of situations. Even one’s mood can be a factor, as Jacobs notes. Another psychological dynamic is that, even when one believes one is being rational, it may be that one’s brain is instead trying to justify emotionally and intuitively made decisions (a process known as rationalizing).

Applying Science to Practice: Promoting System 2 Thinking About Ethical Issues

What do these insights mean for us as 1) public administrators who want to be ethical, 2) as organizational leaders who want to lead ethical organizations and 3) as ethics educators who want to support ethical decision-making and ethical organizations? 

As Giacalone has argued, public servants need to understand how our cognitive processes can betray us. This awareness enables us, as Drumright and colleagues note, to keep our “ethical antennae extended” to look for the ethical dimensions of issues.

Learning more about these topics and exposing either in-service learners or university students to behavioral ethics concepts is not as difficult or time-consuming as one might think. This short video introduces system 1 and system 2 thinking in Kahneman’s own words. Simons’ “Monkey Business Illusion” video engages viewers in a task that further illustrates Kahneman’s description of cognitive illusions as well as potential blind spots when one is focused on a task.

As many of the links in this column demonstrate, the University of Texas’ “Ethics Unwrapped” website is a resource for educators and others on a wide variety of behavioral ethics concepts (often with videos and references to supplemental information).

The website also offers case studies, which can be an engaging way to encourage learners to apply behavioral ethics concepts and be intentional about looking for the values-dimensions of situations. Others to consider (depending on the context), include the Flint Water Crisis, the Challenger Disaster, the Pasadena embezzlement scandal and the Sarasota County situation Menzel described in this publication.

Structuring discussion on any one of these case studies (or others) can involve the following:

  1. Asking participants to identify which core value(s) (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion) is/are at stake in the situation and, most importantly, why or how; and
  2. Inviting discussion about what the officials in the examples might have been thinking and feeling about the situation. What were they focusing on? What might they be overlooking? What behavioral ethics dynamics might have been at play?

Such discussion can be a helpful way to encourage current and future public servants to “keep their ethical antennae extended.”

Conclusion and Next Steps

Awareness is necessary, but not sufficient, for individuals to take action consistent with core values. The next two columns will explore the remaining elements of this suggested framework (the remaining tripod legs) for supporting public servants in doing the right thing through in-service ethics education and other contexts.


Author: JoAnne Speers, MPP and JD, trains and consults on public service ethics as principal of S2 Ethics Strategies. She previously served as chief executive of the Institute for Local Government, where she developed and directed its ethics program. JoAnne has also taught ethics as an adjunct professor. Her email is [email protected]

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