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The Desire to Fit In is the Root of Almost All Wrongdoing

Imagine that one morning you discover a ring that grants you magic powers. With this ring on your finger, you can seize the presidency, rob Fort Knox and instantly become the most famous person on the planet. So, would you do it?

Readers of Plato’s Republic will find this thought experiment familiar. For Plato, one of the central problems of ethics is explaining why we should prioritise moral virtue over power or money. If the price of exploiting the mythical ‘Ring of Gyges’ – acting wrongly – isn’t worth the material rewards, then morality is vindicated.

Notice that Plato assumes that we stray from the moral path through being tempted by personal gain – that’s why he tries to show that virtue is more valuable than the gold we can get through vice. He isn’t alone in making this assumption. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes worries about justifying morality to the ‘fool’ who says that ‘there is no such thing as justice’ and breaks his word when it works to his advantage. And when thinking about our reasons to prefer virtue to vice, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) David Hume confronts the ‘sensible knave’, a...

How Bad People Rise to the Top

If I had a list of Top 10 topics that people like to talk about in life, this one would undoubtedly be on it: How is it that jerks always seem to get ahead while nice guys finish last? In his book of the same name, Harold Kushner asked a similar question: Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People

Based on my observations of awful, corrupt leaders over the past 15 years or so, here are a few suggestions:

They have infinite ambition. You and I want to go home at the end of the day. We want to have a life, go to the movies, make art. We feel bad when our work commitments cut into our family time. But to a corrupt leader, the only thing that matters is getting the position they're after.

They lack emotional intelligence. You and I feel bad when we see somebody crying. But the corrupt leader either doesn't notice or doesn't know why they should care. They don't relate to other people.

They feel deprived of something they perceive as owed to them. You and I say to ourselves, we have to work for stuff in order...

The Algorithms That Tell Bosses How Employees Are Feeling

Every day, humans type out more than 200 billion emails, hundreds of millions of tweets, and innumerable texts, chats, and private messages. No one person could pick through even a tiny sliver of this information and stitch together themes and trends—but computers are starting to be able to. For more than a decade, researchers have been developing computer programs that can ingest enormous amounts of writing to try and understand the emotions stirred up by an idea or a product.

The field—known as sentiment analysis—got its start in market research. As online reviews started to gather steam in the mid-2000s, companies who wanted to understand how their products—or their competitors’ offerings—were being received  began to use algorithms to aggregate reviews, says Bing Liu, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who has written extensively about the history of sentiment analysis. The algorithmic approach could reveal broader insights than a focus groups or surveys, the thinking went.

Sentiment analysis has bloomed into a large and lucrative industry. Dozens of startups now focus exclusively on providing these services to other companies, Liu says, and many bigger tech corporations have developed their own software...

How Statistics are Twisted to Obscure Public Understanding

Mark Twain attributed to Benjamin Disraeli the famous remark: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ In every industry, from education to healthcare to travel, the generation of quantitative data is considered important to maintain quality through competition. Yet statistics rarely show what they seem.

If you look at recent airline statistics, you’ll think that a far higher number of planes are arriving on schedule or early than ever before. But this appearance of improvement is deceptive. Airlines have become experts at appearance management: by listing flight times as 20-30 per cent longer than what the actual flight takes, flights that operate on a normal to slightly delayed schedule are still counted as arriving ‘early’ or ‘on time’. A study funded by the Federal Aviation Administration refers to the airline tactic as schedule buffering.

It is open to question, however, whether flights operating on a buffered schedule arrive ‘on time’ in the sense that ordinary people use the term. If a flight is scheduled for 2.5 hours and takes, on average, only 1.5 hours to reach its destination, then is any flight that arrives at its scheduled time really on time? Or have...

We Remember Our Coworkers’ Misdeeds, but What about Our Own?

Every office has them: colleagues behaving badly. Whether they always pad their expense reports, call in sick then go to the beach, or just avoid refilling the printer paper, their shenanigans seldom stop.

New research from the Kellogg School’s Maryam Kouchaki may help explain why. Simply put, her findings suggest that people recall their unethical behaviors with less-than-vivid clarity—increasing the likelihood that they will take similar actions in the future.

“It’s a phenomenon that we see over and over in organizations, in everyday life—people repeatedly engaging in unethical behavior,” says Kouchaki, an assistant professor of management and organizations. “This paper is our attempt to answer why.”

None of us like thinking poorly about ourselves, she explains, so as a defense mechanism we tend to have murky memories of when we acted poorly in the past. This faulty recollection, her research shows, can lead to unethical behavior in the future, since we don’t have our own experiences at hand to act as a deterrent. She calls the phenomenon “unethical amnesia.”

However, this phenomenon can be avoided. “A habit of self-reflection helps to keep such memories alive and to learn from them and to not act unethically...

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