The Unicorn of Human Behavior

The idea that we can be perfectly ethical and unbiased all of the time, as we imagine ourselves to be, is a myth. It is a unicorn-like idea. It is a beautiful and elegant notion, and we wish it were real, but it doesn’t exist outside of our own imaginations.

Social scientists have shown time and time again that we are prone to departures from perfect ethicality and egalitarianism. Still we cling to what this illusion offers: an alternative reality in which good people are ethically infallible, and in which we are all amongst the good. While it is hard for us to let go of the idea that we are perfectly ethical, unbounded ethicality is indeed a fantasy—the moral unicorn of human behavior.

In other words, many of us care about being ethical, and consistently believe that we are ethical, yet ample evidence suggests that there is a significant gap between how we view our own ethicality and how ethically we actually behave. I study this gap, which my co-authors and I refer to as “bounded ethicality.”

Bounded ethicality specifically describes the role of automatic psychological processes that act as barriers to a more egalitarian and inclusive society. Implicit bias (also known as unconscious bias) is a well-known example. These barriers work in opposition to the aspirations we hold about justice, morality, and inclusion. We tend to assume these barriers will be visible, and reliance on this assumption can make social injustice—in the form of discrimination—quite likely. Understanding bounded ethicality can help us better understand how well-meaning people can produce organizations and societies that fall short of our ethical and egalitarian aspirations.

Selected related publications:

A Dynamic and Cyclical Model of Bounded Ethicality (PDF)
Chugh, D., & Kern, M.C. (2016). Research in Organizational Behavior, 36.

What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations (PDF)
Milkman, K.L., Akinola, M., & Chugh, D. (2015). Journal of Applied Psychology.

The Implications of Marriage Structure for Men's Workplace Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors Toward Women (PDF)
Desai, S., Chugh, D., & Brief, A. (2014). Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(2), 330-365.

Bounded Ethicality: The Perils of Loss Framing (PDF)
Kern, M. & Chugh, D. (2009). Psychological Science, 20(3), 378-384.

1964 Was Not That Long Ago: A Story of Gateways and Pathways (PDF)
Chugh, D. & Brief, A. (2008). In Brief, A. (Ed.), Diversity at Work. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Bounded Ethicality as a Psychological Barrier to Recognizing Conflicts of Interest (PDF)
Chugh, D., Banaji, M., &  Bazerman, M. (2005). In Moore, D., Cain, D., Loewenstein, G., & Bazerman, M. (Eds.), Conflicts of Interest: Challenges and Solutions in Business, Law, Medicine, and Public Policy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Societal and Managerial Implications of Implicit Social Cognition: Why Milliseconds Matter (PDF)
Chugh, D. (2004). Social Justice Research, 17(2), 203-222.