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Ethical Decisionmaking: Maybe a Good Mood isn’t Better

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

By Richard M. Jacobs
July 6, 2021

Especially when ethical dilemmas are involved, a bad mood can tempt public administrators to delay decisionmaking. “Better wait until I’m in a good mood,” they reason.

In, “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment,” Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein challenge the assumption underlying the reasoning process. While mood and judgment correlate, the relationship is more nuanced and perhaps even more counter-intuitive than many assume.

The data

One decade ago, psychologist Joseph Forgas found that a good mood doesn’t guarantee making either a good or bad decision.

Why? Decisionmaking is more nuanced, impacting the process by “framing” how people assess specific situations: what they notice (or don’t notice) around them, what they retrieve (or don’t retrieve) from memory; and, how they interpret these signals.

Yet, when confronting ethical dilemmas, what appears to matter most is the mood experienced immediately prior to deliberating. Consider this counter-intuitive finding: Administrators experiencing good moods prior to deliberating are 300% more likely to act unethically.

The confounding variable

With mood “framing” decisionmaking, it generates an invisible phenomenon— “noise”—defined as, “Variability in judgments that otherwise should be identical.”

“Noise” isn’t “bias” in that good decisions aren’t achieved simply by reducing general biases (for example, optimism) or specific social and cognitive biases (for example, discrimination).

Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein note, “Wherever there is judgment, there is noise.” Thus, any attempt to eliminate noise is an exercise in futility.

The problem? Administrators oftentimes are unaware of noise and neglect it.

Identifying and reducing noise

The moment-to-moment variability of moods can impact the quality of judgments in ways administrators cannot control. This variability should cause administrators—in the mistaken belief that they make purely objective judgments because they’re in a good mood—to be wary, take a step back and identify and reduce noise so their decisions will be more objective.

To identify the source(s) of the noise, administrators conduct a “noise audit” which yields data describing why decisions that otherwise should be identical differed. These data assist administrators, in turn, to select commonsense variables that identify the simplest possible “reasoned rules” that may reduce the “noise.”

When the conditions are right, administrators replace their judgment with those reasoned rules, which in many contexts are about as accurate as statistical models constructed with identical data sets. Then, based upon the data, administrators can practice personal “decision hygiene” to eliminate overconfidence in their decisionmaking process by practicing additional noise-reduction techniques that make their judgments increasingly objective.

Reducing noise in public service organizations

Having identified and reduced noise in their decisionmaking process, public administrators are prepared to lead subordinates in identifying and reducing noise in their decisionmaking process.

This initiative involves training subordinates to learn how to:

  • Undertake a noise audit.
  • Identify the sources of noise in their decisions.
  • Formulate commonsense rules to reduce the noise.
  • Utilize the data to identify how to improve the quality of individual and collective decisions.

Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein suggest the data will reveal some unpleasant realities requiring action. To achieve “buy-in” and “ownership” of the process, administrators should include respected subordinates in formulating the rules and conducting the audit as well as in compiling its results, nullifying the rules only in exceptional circumstances. Administrators might also consider hiring an experienced social scientist to supervise the audit’s technical aspects.

Reducing noise and ethical leadership

Reducing noise in public service organizations represents an exercise of ethical leadership, revealing a public administrator’s ethical character in three ways:

  • Conducting noise audits demonstrates personal integrity, promotes democratic participation, strengthens equity and fully informs and advises subordinates.
  • Reducing noise advances professional excellence across the organization and promotes the development of a more ethical organization by providing subordinates a mechanism to hold themselves accountable for their decisions.
  • The process encourages open expression and provides a channel for dissent, strengthening subordinates’ capabilities to act competently and ethically.

Identifying and reducing noise in the decisionmaking process translates these abstract principles expressed in ASPA’s Code of Ethics into more objective and ethical decisions that will evidence greater “competence”—called “ethical competence”—across the organization.

Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Immediate Past Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance and former Acquisitions Editor for Public Integrity. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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One Response to Ethical Decisionmaking: Maybe a Good Mood isn’t Better

  1. steven koven Reply

    July 26, 2021 at 11:50 am

    Hi Rich: Is this an argument against discretion and for following rules as I argued in The Case against Bureaucratic Discretion, 2019, PalgraveMacmillan ?

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