Home > Podcasts > BETA Podcast: Interview with Daniel Effron

BETA Podcast: Interview with Daniel Effron

23 January 2019

What pushes good people to do bad things? According to Daniel Effron, it’s often something called moral licence.

When people do a good thing, they feel licence to do a bad thing.

Daniel is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the London Business School, where he specialises in ethics and morality.

Daniel’s research dives into the psychological processes that allow good people to justify acting unethically.

He also discusses how this applies to racial discrimination, and his early work analysing people’s behaviour after voting for Barack Obama after the 2008 election.

Disclaimer: BETA's podcasts discuss behavioural economics and insights with a range of academics, experts and practitioners. The views expressed are those of the individuals interviewed and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Government.

Transcript

[music]

Elaine Ung:

Hello, and welcome to another episode in BETA's podcast series. BETA is the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian government. And the team sits in the Federal Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. BETA's mission is to advance the wellbeing of Australians by applying behavioural insights to public policy and administration. Hi, my name's Elaine, and I'm part of the team.

In this podcast series, we interview a whole range of behavioural economics and behavioural insights, academics, practitioners and policy makers. This episode is actually part of our mini BX series, where we interviewed some of the speakers at the 2018 Behavioural Exchange Conference, or BX 2018. There speakers travelled from all around the world to share the work they've been doing in the behavioural economics and insights field.

In this episode, I interview Daniel Effron, who is an Associate Professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School. A social psychologist by training, Daniel currently studies the psychology of ethics and morality. For example, his research examines the psychological processes that allow people to act unethically without actually feeling unethical. He also researches how people form judgements of other's wrong doing. It's all very engaging and interesting. Hope you enjoy!

Hello, I'm at the International Convention Centre today at Sydney and we're at the Behavioural Exchange Conference. I have with me Daniel Effron, from the London Business School, and thank you so much for your time today.

Could you please give us a bit of background? So who you are and where you've come from?

Daniel Effron:

Great. Well as you said I'm Daniel Effron. I'm an Associate Professor at London Business School in London. I'm travelling to Australia for the first time so I'm excited to be here.

Elaine Ung:

Could you please share with us some of your academic background and the research you've done in the field?

Daniel Effron:

Sure. I'm a social psychologist. I study the psychology of ethics and morality. So I'm interested in how people reason about right and wrong and the situational factors that lead good people to do bad things. One of the phenomena that I've studied a lot is called moral licencing and refers to the fact that sometimes doing good things can make people feel like they have a pass to do bad things. I looked at this particularly in the area of race and racial discrimination. So if people feel like they've established their non-racist credentials by doing something egalitarian, they subsequently feel like they can express views or take actions that favour one group at the expense of another group. Actions that could seem prejudiced.

Elaine Ung:

Yeah right. So how did you become interested in behavioural economics or the behaviour insights field?

Daniel Effron:

Sure. So I don't actually consider myself a behavioural economist, I’m a social psychologist. But, yeah, I've always been interested in how to shape and change people's behaviour. I think my interest in the specific area that I've done a lot of study in, moral licencing, occurred in 2008. I was in grad school and Barack Obama was running for president in the U.S. at the time and I started talking with a friend of mine in grad school about what effect people going to the voting booth and casting their ballot for Obama might have on their psychology. And we knew about some work from our advisers a few years back suggesting that when people can do things that seem non-racist, they subsequently feel like they have a licence to do something that could seem prejudiced. So we thought maybe when people express their support for Obama, it could have an ironic effect. They could feel like they've established themselves as unprejudiced individuals and therefore they might feel licenced to express views that favour white people at the expense of black people.

So we ran some studies and unfortunately we found support for that hypothesis. And those early studies, those were a decade ago now, really informed the kind of work that I've done since. Essentially how people with good intentions who really care about viewing themselves as upstanding ethical individuals can sometimes let themselves off the hook for doing things that we might see as not so ethical.

Elaine Ung:

And that leads really nicely into my next question. Which is could you please give us an example of some of your work that demonstrates the potential of your research?

Daniel Effron:

Sure. One of the things I'll be talking about at the conference is something my colleagues and I call the ‘cheat at the end effect’. So this is different than the moral licencing. We know from previous work that if you give people a bunch of opportunities to cheat, and totally get away with it, the average person will cheat some of the time but not all the time. People don't cheat to the maximum extent possible because they want to feel like reasonable human beings and they want to get something good for themselves. People balance this.

So my colleagues and I asked, if you give people a set number of opportunities to cheat and they know exactly how many there are going to be, can we predict when they are going to cheat? And we found evidence over and over again in many studies that people are more likely to cheat at the end. Their very last opportunity. It's not that they think they are less likely to get caught at the end, it's that people don't like passing up last chances. They start thinking, "Ah, I'd really kick myself. I'd feel a lot of regret if I passed up this last chance to do something." It's the same with cheating.

Elaine Ung:

That's really fascinating. So what about some things that you're working on right now. Anything you can share with us?

Daniel Effron:

Sure. I've been troubled by the proliferation of misinformation in this political climate where fake news and alternative facts flourish. One concern that's typically voiced about fake news and other sources of misinformation is that sometimes people forget or don't even realise that it's fake. I think that's true. That's a concern. As a psychologist that studies ethics and morality, another concern I have, is that people sometimes know it's fake but they're willing to give it a pass. They may think, "Ah, it's not so unethical to spread or share this kind of information." So I'm trying to understand the psychology of when people judge misinformation as not particularly unethical to spread, and hopefully better understand what we can do to prevent the spread of misinformation.

Elaine Ung:

Sure. And do you have a favourite behavioural bias?

Daniel Effron:

I have a favourite behavioural bias.

Elaine Ung:

Or maybe a psychological phenomenon or concept.

Daniel Effron:

There's research suggesting that when lay people try to figure out why someone isn't doing something, they tend to focus on motivation. They tend to say, "That person just doesn't care enough." Lewin’s insight though is that very often they do care about it but there's just something standing in their way. There's some sort of barrier. So what can we do to remove that barrier? I think that's a key behavioural insight that infuses a lot of the research particularly in the area of ethics and morality. In ethics and morality, often we want to put barriers in place, right? Someone may be tempted to cheat, they have the motivation, what psychological barriers can we put in place to get them to sort of stop and reflect and say, "That's not the kind of person I am."

Elaine Ung:

I think it's a really exciting time that we're starting to see the research in all these different fields being applied a bit more practically and using that in public policy. I think that's quite a change and a shift in the direction and it's really exciting to see.

So how do you use these concepts or these social psychology—how do you use your research in your everyday life? So I mean the question I would be asking if you were a behavioural economist is, how do you BE yourself?

Daniel Effron:

I think every time I face any sort of situation where it seems like I'm tempted to do something that's seems a little ethically ambiguous, I get really paranoid. Alright, if I start thinking—not paranoid that people are going to see me or I'm going to get caught, but I start getting paranoid about the human ability to rationalise bad behaviour. Because basically that's what I study: how good people are able to convince themselves that it's okay for them to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do. So if something seems okay to me in the moment, I start asking myself, "Am I subject to these psychological biases.

Am I tricking myself into thinking this is okay?" And I try to take a step back. I don't know if studying ethics and morality has actually made me more ethical, but it certainly tuned me in to those issues and how all of us, even those of us that study this kind of thing, are vulnerable to psychological traps that can lead good people to do bad things.

Elaine Ung:

Yeah, right. Could you share with us the way you think this field is heading towards or what's next in the behavioural economics field broadly?

Daniel Effron:

Yeah. Well I can speak to my area of ethics and morality. We've done a lot of laboratory research trying to understand how people rationalise bad behaviour and what sorts of situations nudge people towards doing bad things unintentionally. And there's been some really great field work on scaling this kind of stuff up and designing interventions that can be rolled out in organisations, for example, to increase honesty. I think there needs to be a lot more of those interventions. I think we're getting to the point where we understand the basic psychology better and there's a lot more to be done to figure out how to leverage that psychology to make a real impact in the world.

Elaine Ung:

And one final question. What's next for you? What's your next big research piece?

Daniel Effron:

Yeah. Something around fake news and misinformation. Can we design interventions that not just help people recognise that news is fake or that misinformation is false but that makes them think it's not okay to spread it.

Elaine Ung:

Very interested in what comes out of that. So, thank you so much for your time today and I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

Daniel Effron:

Thanks. I'm sure I will. There's a lot of great stuff.

Elaine Ung:

Thank you.

Hi again, thanks for listening in. If you want to learn more about Professor Effron's research, you can find more information on his website, www.danieleffron.com. Professor Effron's research has also been written about in media outlets like the New York Times, The Atlantic and Bloomberg. Thanks for tuning in. If you haven't heard our previous episodes, listen to them at www.pmc.gov.au/beta. Until next time!