Professor Nicholas Epley teaches the science of ethics and why it matters—at work and in life.
- October 10, 2016
- Faculty Impact
I came to Booth in 2005 and had been teaching Managing in Organizations, a foundation course. In the summer of 2014, I decided to take on something new. I’m a psychologist, and there’s a lot of really interesting research explaining why good people can do bad things. I started teaching a version of this to the Executive students. Last winter was the first time I taught the 10-week course to Full-Time students. Ethics courses are usually unpopular. They can seem preachy, and they make people uncomfortable. This course is much different. I rely on what everyone knows to be right and wrong and address how we can enable people to do good.
Most intuitively believe that ethics are about people’s beliefs. The truth is that much unethical behavior happens when good people find themselves in bad situations. Ethics is therefore a design problem. I have students read academic research, popular reports of empirical findings in the New York Times and Harvard Business Review, and two books by psychologists. We watch two documentaries, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Inside Job about the 2008 financial crisis. I also collect data from students in a questionnaire so that students can experience some of the concepts we discuss directly.
One week I have the students play a business game, based on a British television show. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma: there are two people and a pot of money. Each player has to decide: steal or split. If both choose to steal, they get nothing. This exercise allows me to demonstrate the importance of reputation for encouraging ethical behavior.
The last two weeks of class I have them do some good, some ethical things: three random acts of kindness, a gratitude letter. Students think it’s going to be awkward, but science shows that if you want to feel happier today, do something kind: it’s really powerful. They go out and deliver flowers, buy someone Starbucks, carry packages, invite a struggling colleague to lunch, put doughnuts on desks. I collect the data and measure how happy they felt. These activities not only replicate existing research, but extend it in new directions as well.
I hope that they find really strong practical arguments for being good, because it is essential for sustainability in business and also increases wellbeing. Ethics depend on how you design your business culture: how you fire, hire, promote. You should design it in such a way that an ethical life—to do well, to do good, to feel good—is top of mind.
“Science shows if you want to feel happier today, do something kind; it’s really powerful.”
Matthew Barron, ’16: The course contained material you don’t find in other Booth classes. It was a nice departure for me and hyper-relevant for the early-stage health-care companies I work in. How can you construct a company to drive the best business economics, where employees thrive, where they’re the best version of themselves? We really got into it in class, how to build a successful organization, because the environment you create has a dramatic influence over decision making. It’s not the individual; it’s the context. We studied GM, which had severe recall issues, which they acknowledged—but it was no one’s job, no one’s responsibility, to correct the issue.
Lauren Dawson, ’16: I worked in human capital at Amazon, and I plan to return after Booth. This course was thus relevant and truly delivered on everything it said it would. How can we make a happy, motivated, productive workforce? Why is this the best way for business? Professor Epley is a wonderful lecturer, and he taught this course in an innovative way, with a mixed format: the exercises were interesting and uncomfortable. There was one, for example, where we simulated being professional investors, with one student acting as the financial professional and the other contributing the capital. The fake professionals could then decide to steal or split. I did neither: As a fake financial professional, I took a flat 5 percent cut and made the least amount of money of anyone in the class! That made me wonder if I’d ever be successful. Yet, I felt good about my investment decision, because it was fair and it delivered upon my professional values. I learned about myself. And ultimately, while I loved many classes at Booth, this one is top of my list.
Jeremy Krell: As a health-care provider and entrepreneur working with early- and growth- stage companies, for me the key takeaway was about how to position ethics as a central building block. This class was engaging and encouraged self-reflection. We did a “best self” exercise, where we went out and asked others—family, friends, colleagues—to describe our best selves. That was an eye-opening experience. In the midst of so many current events and tragic media stories about the abuse of power—and how we prevent it—this course is extremely pertinent. Professor Epley brought the material to life; he used relevant, relatable examples from the recent past—the financial crisis, Enron. There was no fluff. For me, the course was a fresh reminder that being in the workforce is not just about maximizing profit. There’s a necessary balance. You can do good at work and feel good about it.