Adding Emotion to Ethics Education

Traditionally, teaching ethics involved reasoning through abstract cases. But after all we’ve learned through neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral economics, it’s clear we can’t leave out emotion.

Adding Emotion to Ethics Education

Gut feeling: the phrase comes up often when people talk ethics. Yet ethics training has often focused on reasoning, with students working through case studies as rationally as possible.

That approach misses out on all we’ve learned recently through brain research and interdisciplinary studies, Chris Adkins argues. Adkins, the director of the Undergraduate Program at the College of William & Mary’s Mason School of Business, is working to infuse intuition and emotion into the teaching of business ethics.

“Many people say that ethics cannot be taught, but it’s definitely learned,” Adkins says.

To do it, Adkins incorporates strategies inspired by neuroscience, behavioral economics, and social psychology—and some of them are surprising.

“Many people say that ethics cannot be taught, but it’s definitely learned,” Adkins says. “The traditional approach has been to elevate the role of reason—applying a framework. But that linear, rational sequence wasn’t seeming to hold up in empirical studies. The more up close and personal the actual situation, the more emotional it’s going to be.”

Here are some of the research findings Adkins infuses into his teaching that are worth knowing:

There is no ethical center of the brain. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, neuroscientists can see which parts of the brain are oxygenated based on different stimuli. They’ve found there is no “center” where the ethical decision-making happens.

In fact, entirely different regions of the brain light up when people are making a moral decision that feels impersonal (like flipping a switch to kill one person but save a group) than one that feels intensely emotional (like still saving the group, but by pushing one person off a bridge). With that in mind, Adkins says, we need to involve the emotion-focused areas of the brain when teaching ethics, too.

Moral judgment is generally the result of quick, automatic evaluations that people consider “intuitions.” Influential psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, built a case for this starting with a 2001 paper called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.”

Simply put, Haidt’s argument is that reasoning occurs after an emotional intuition. In other words, the brain doesn’t behave like a judge making an impartial decision, it acts like a lawyer justifying the decision made. Knowing that, Adkins says, means that ethics training should be approached differently. 

Previous experiences bias the outcome. The brain connects reinforcing stimuli based on previous emotional experiences, neuroscientist Antonio DaMasio asserted in his 1996 “somatic marker hypothesis.” DaMasio said that during the decision-making process, “markers” in the brain connect reinforcing stimuli based on previous emotional experiences, covertly biasing the outcome.  

In short, the brain is always assessing whether a person has encountered such a situation before—and recalling how it worked out. The process helps him quickly decide whether to get close to a scenario, person, or deal or whether to back away. As Adkins says, “It definitely influences how we perceive the situation and how we consider what might happen in the future, and it definitely influences the reasoning strategies we use.”

Intuition is developed through experience—and right action can be “habituated.” As behavioral economist Robin Hogarth argued in his book Educating Intuition, intuition can be shaped in the same way a chess player improves her skills. The key is not simply playing a lot, but also thinking through each move and seeing what works until she can just “feel” the right move.

Intuition can be shaped in the same way a chess player improves her skills. The key is not simply playing a lot, but also thinking through each move and seeing what works until she can just “feel” the right move.

“It’s about habituating right action,” Adkins says, “and the way that you do that is that what you want and what you do are in concert with each other. And you develop that through practice—every environment gives you feedback and says, ‘Was this successful or was it not?’”  

Bit by bit, our intuition is formed in this way. And in order to work well, the accuracy and timeliness of the feedback is crucial, Adkins says. Both in classrooms and organizations, fast and accurate feedback helps effectively “educate” our intuition.

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