One simple question can "nudge" people toward ethical behavior.

By Brett Beasley

We often use carrots, sticks, and training to improve ethics. But we should not neglect the power of a simple question.

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How can we influence other people to make sure they do what's right? It is a question we all try to answer each day in our homes, our organizations, and our communities.

Two strategies seem to come to mind quite quickly: 1.) Punish bad behavior, and 2.) Reward good behavior.

After some reflection, we may come up with a third strategy, one rooted in education. We can influence people by teaching them what is right and what is wrong.

It is true that all three of these strategies are indispensable for encouraging ethical behavior. But they have an obvious drawback: They are time-intensive, costly, and difficult. Companies spend millions of dollars and countless hours each year on ethics training sessions and on systems for rewards and punishments, which require constant monitoring and assessment.

While these strategies are costly, they make sense. Ethics is important, and especially in the long run, it pays to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, as we seek to improve behavior with the right incentives and the right training, we neglect easier-to-implement strategies. Sometimes these strategies are as simple as asking a question.

Recently, a group of researchers led by Valerio Capraro (Middlesex University London) asked study participants a simple moral question in a variety of different scenarios. They asked study participants either "What do you think is the morally right thing to do?" or "What do other people think is the morally right thing to do?" They found that these simple questions had far reaching and long lasting effects—even in the absence of any added incentive or training.

Capraro and colleagues relied mostly on economic games to test out their questions. They directed participants to play the Dictator Game and the Prisoner's Dilemma, two games which offer participants the opportunity to either make selfish or generous decisions. They allowed some participants to play without any outside influence. But for some, they asked one of their two questions. They found that those who encountered a moral question were more likely to make generous choices and less likely to make selfish ones.

But how long does this effect last? Does it "spill over" to other contexts, or is it limited to the game the participants were playing? The researchers explored this question by instructing participants to either play an additional round of the game or switch to a different game. Those who had received the "nudge" in the previous round persisted in playing less selfishly and more generously, suggesting that this simple question had a surprising ripple effect.

Put it in practice

Weigh your words.

Words matter. Some words are loaded with moral meanings and implications, while others tend to downplay or redirect us away from moral considerations. By paying careful attention to your words, and making sure you use words that remind yourself and others of moral concerns, you keep ethics from fading from view when a tough decision arrives.

Combine strategies to increase their effectiveness.

We often imagine that ethics is about taking grand stands at great risk to yourself. And it can be. But it can also be strategic and tactical. Don't underestimate the power of taking small steps and implementing small strategies consistently in order to build an ethical culture.

Ask questions.

Leaders don't just lead by having the right answers; they lead by asking the right questions. Not only can questions  signal intellectual humility and help you elicit honest answers from others, they can also redirect people toward ethical behavior. 

In order to do the right thing, we need to know what the right thing is, and we need to have the right motivation in place. But it also helps for moral concerns to be salient to us when we're actually acting and making decisions. In addition to the right carrots, sticks, and trainings, make sure to "nudge" people when they need it most.

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