by Ann Tenbrunsel & Max Bazerman

In his State of the Union address, President Obama referred to a "new era of cooperation". A call to end bi-partisanship. A call to putting aside differences and focusing on similarities.

It is a noble call and one that most rational people would endorse. Why wouldn't we want to pull together to make progress? Don't we all just want to "get along"?

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. The desire to get along is a necessary step. But it is not sufficient. Our guess is that the motivation to cooperate and move our country forward has been with this country since its beginning. Why then do we see such divisions between the parties, divisions that prevent progress and sometimes take us a step or two backward?

Part of the answer lies in the oft-forgotten cognitive realities of our brain. We want to cooperate and we believe that we do. We want to develop policies that are ethical and fair to all people and we are sure we do that. But our perceptions are flawed.

Take this test. Estimate how cooperative you are in comparison to those in your office, or, if you don't work, compare yourself to your neighbors. Rate yourself on a scale from 0 to 100, with a 0 indicating you are the least cooperative person in the group you are considering (your office or neighbors), a 50 indicating that your cooperation is about average, and a 100 indicating that you are the most cooperative in the group. Now do the same thing for how ethical you are. We have done this for numerous groups of executives, students and other leaders. And we see the same results. The average rating on cooperativeness and ethics is somewhere in the high 70s, somewhere between 75 and 79. Statistically, this isn't possible since we told you, and the others who have taken this test, that the average should be 50. Clearly, some people overestimated their cooperativeness and ethicality. Most likely, everyone overestimated.

The emerging field of "behavioral ethics" examines the cognitive barriers that prevent us from being the person we would like to be. Barriers that we are unaware of, that lead to decisions and actions that we would never endorse if we knew about them. The danger lies in that we don't know these barriers exist and so we don't realize that we were actually uncooperative when we tried to be cooperative and unethical when we tried to be ethical. And so our perceptions are really more perceptions of how we would like to be, rather than how we actually are.

One of the reasons for these faulty perceptions has to do with "bounded ethicality". Bounded ethicality examines the psychological processes that lead to ethically questionable behaviors by "good" people, people who desire to be ethical. Similar to "bounded rationality", the limitations of our mind make it impossible for us to consider all the ethical facets of a decision that we should. And so we find shortcuts to help us. These shortcuts, however, are a very specific type of path, one that is biased in the direction that favors ourselves.

Republicans typically focus on reducing taxes and preventing cuts in defense spending, while Democrats resist cuts to social services. Both sides believe they are defending ethical principles. Yet they have both narrowly defined the situation, and don't' know that they have done so. As a result, they can't see that by ignoring or preventing certain decisions, they are creating harm, harm to individuals or groups they have not considered and ultimately, harm to our society. They fall prey to what has been described as "ethical fading", a process by which we are not aware of the ethical implications of our decision.

We are all for cooperation among politicians. But if we truly are to usher in a "new era of cooperation", we need to realize that the motivation to be cooperative won't be enough. What is also needed is a "new" understanding of the way in which we our desire to do good and be good is compromised by the cognitive limitations of our mind. Behavioral ethics can help provide us with this understanding.

Copyright Ann Tenbrunsel and Max Bazerman
Ann Tenbrunsel is the Rex and Alice A. Martin Professor of Business Ethics and co-director of Notre Dame's Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide. Max Bazerman is the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. They are the authors of Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What is Right and What To Do About It to be published this spring by Princeton University Press.

About the Authors

Ann E. Tenbrunsel

Ann E. Tenbrunsel is the Rex and Alice A. Martin Professor of Business Ethics and and the Co-director of the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide at the University of Notre Dame. 

Max H. Bazerman

Max Bazerman is the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

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Blind Spots

Politics: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Politics: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?