A few years ago, Israeli game theorist Ariel Rubinstein got the idea of examining how the tools of economic science affected the judgment and empathy of his undergraduate students at Tel Aviv University. He made each student the CEO of a struggling hypothetical company, and tasked them with deciding how many employees to lay off. Some students were given an algebraic equation that expressed profits as a function of the number of employees on the payroll. Others were given a table listing the number of employees in one column and corresponding profits in the other. Simply presenting the layoff/profits data in a different format had a surprisingly strong effect on students’ choices—fewer than half of the “table” students chose to fire as many workers as was necessary to maximize profits, whereas three quarters of the “equation” students chose the profit-maximizing level of pink slips. Why? The “equation” group simply “solved” the company’s problem of profit maximization, without thinking about the consequences for the employees they were firing.
Rubinstein’s classroom experiment serves as one lesson in the pitfalls of the scientific method: It often seems to distract us from considering the full implications of our calculations. The point isn’t that it’s necessarily immoral to fire an employee—Milton Friedman famously claimed that the sole purpose of a company is indeed to maximize profits—but rather that the students who were encouraged to think of the decision to fire someone as an algebra problem didn’t seem to think about the employees at all.
The experiment is indicative of the challenge faced by business schools, which devote themselves to teaching management as a science, without always acknowledging that every business decision has societal repercussions. A new generation of psychologists is now thinking about how to create ethical leaders in business and in other professions, based on the notion that good people often do bad things unconsciously. It may transform not just education in the professions, but the way we think about encouraging people to do the right thing in general.
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