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Moral Compass Shifts As Roles Change

Moral Compass Shifts As Roles ChangeA person’s sense of right or wrong may change depending on what role they are playing at the time, according to a new study that also found that people may not even be aware of their shifting moral integrity.

The study from researchers at Oregon State University focused on people who have more than one role, such as an engineer who is also a manager, or an Army medic who is also a soldier.

In the study, to be published in a future issue of The Academy of Management Journal, lead author Keith Leavitt, Ph.D., found that workers who tend to have dual roles in their jobs would change their moral judgments based on what they thought was expected of them at the time.

“When people switch hats, they often switch moral compasses,” Leavitt said. “People like to think they are inherently moral creatures — you either have character or you don’t. But our studies show that the same person may make a completely different decision based on what hat they may be wearing at the time, often without even realizing it.”

Leavitt, an assistant professor of management in the College of Business at OSU, said that “what we consider to be moral sometimes depends on what constituency we are answering to at that moment. For a physician, a human life is priceless. But if that same physician is a managed-care administrator, some degree of moral flexibility becomes necessary to meet their obligations to stockholders.”

He says that businesses should provide subtle cues, such as signage and motivation materials around the office, along with training that helps employees who juggle multiple roles that could conflict with one another.

“Organizations and businesses need to recognize that even very subtle images and icons can give employees non-conscious clues as to what the firm values,” he said. “Whether they know it or not, people are often taking in messages about what their role is and what is expected of them, and this may conflict with what they know to be the moral or correct decision.”

The researchers conducted three studies with employees who had dual roles. In the first, 128 U.S. Army medics were asked to complete a series of problem-solving tests, which included subliminal cues that hinted they might be acting as either a medic or a soldier. All 128 said the cues had no bearing on their behavior, but apparently they did, according to the researchers, who noted that a much larger percentage of those in the medic category than in the soldier category were unwilling to put a price on human life.

In another test, a group of engineer-managers were asked to write about a time they either behaved as a typical manager, engineer, or both. They were then asked whether U.S. firms should engage in “gifting” to gain a foothold in a new market.

Despite the fact that this would violate federal laws, more than 50 percent of those who fell into the “manager” category said such a practice might be acceptable, compared to 13 percent of those in the engineer category.

“We find that people tend to make decisions that may conflict with their morals when they are overwhelmed, or when they are just doing routine tasks without thinking of the consequences,” Leavitt said. “We tend to play out a script as if our role has already been written. The bottom line is, slow down and think about the consequences when making an ethical decision.”

Source: Oregon State University

Moral Compass Shifts As Roles Change

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Moral Compass Shifts As Roles Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 24 May 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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