Geo Week News

June 3, 2015

Business Ethics and Clean Bathrooms


When I first got into measuring things accuracy was the only thing on my mind. When I started using scanners to measure things I found myself interpreting the data a lot more and delivering less raw data to my clients. This conversion process threw me into the world of business ethics in a way that my technical training had failed to cover. As a result of this experience (and being married to an attorney), I became quite interested in business ethics and related studies in psychology and cognitive behavior. This week I came across a 2 min. story on NPR about the relationship between one’s emotional state and ethical decision-making. My first thought was, “Maybe I can use this to get our office redecorated!” But, after reading the paper upon which it is based I think that those of us in the 3D imaging space may be particularly susceptible and it runs a bit deeper than the office carpet.

First, a bit of background information. When viewing ethical decision making, it is generally agreed that there are six dimensions that may influence one’s judgement and behavior – The Magnitude of Consequences, Social Consensus, Probability of Effect, Temporal Immediacy, Proximity, and Concentration of Effect. The greatest of these is the Magnitude of Consequences. This is essentially the total harm or benefit that will be caused by a particular decision or action. This study researched the effect of emotional states (disgust, sadness, happiness, neutral) on the amount of weight given to the Magnitude of Consequences when making ethical decisions.

In the study they had participants perform an action that was designed to influence their emotional state. In one instance they had them watch (warning!) a scene from Trainspotting  (you were warned!) that involved a particularly gross bathroom in a Scottish pub so that participants would feel disgusted. In another they wrote essays about their most disgusting memory or happiest memory prior to being tested. Then, they were asked to make judgement calls about various scenarios. The interesting bit is that how they ranked the scenarios was dependent upon their emotional state. Whether stealing a sandwich from your employer is very bad, kind of bad, or no big deal can have more to do with how you feel than the incident itself.

Why is this important? Previous studies have shown that decision processing generally falls into one of two categories, systematic processing and heuristic processing. Systematic processing tends to rely more on formal judgements and this has a mitigating factor on the Magnitude of Consequences in the decision making process.

Think of a judge that has to rely upon mandatory sentencing guidelines. Heuristic processing are based upon self-learning with less reliance on well-defined rules. Resultantly, the process puts a greater emphasis on the Magnitude of Consequences. Seeing as we are already in an industry that requires heuristic processing (it’s not like there are textbooks, rules or any type of manuals…) placing ourselves or our employees in any emotional state that exacerbates this effect could cause an ethical dilemma or two.

It’s not a simple as Happy = Good Behavior and Disgusted = Unethical Behavior. In fact, the study showed that happiness and disgust had very similar effects on the decision making process by pushing participants toward heuristic processing while sadness and neutral emotional states tend toward systemic processing.

Essentially, this reliance on the Magnitude of Consequences may be beneficial but it could detrimental if other factors (Social Consensus, Probability of Effect, Temporal Immediacy, Proximity, and Concentration of Effect) are not being adequately considered. In my experience, all of these should be considered in our industry due to the fact that so many other disciplines (some of which many of us barely understand) rely upon our data.  From an in-house perspective the problems may seem smaller (you heuristic thinker, you) but are no less problematic. It may not be a million dollar embezzlement scheme but exaggerating expense reports, or cutting corners on a project can be just as detrimental to a firm’s bottom line. This study suggests that those in more extreme emotional states (happy or disgusted) are more likely to view these “relatively low Magnitude of Consequences… behaviors as less severe than someone in a neutral or sad state”.

So where does all of this leave us? Per usual, in need of more information. How much time do you spend considering the emotional state of your clients, coworkers, and/or employees as you ask them to make decisions that directly impact your well-being? If you are anything like me the answer is, “less than I should, apparently”. Do you think about how you feel before you start making decisions? Perhaps we should; and at a bare minimum, keep the bathrooms cleaned.

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