Points of Reference and Individual Differences As Sources of Bias in Ethical Judgments

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The authors demonstrate that ethical judgments can be biased when previous judgments serve as a point of reference against which a current situation is judged. Scenarios describing ethical or unethical sales practices were used in an experiment to prime subjects who subsequently rated the ethics of an ethically ambiguous target scenario. The target tended to be rated as more ethical by subjects primed with unethical scenarios, and less ethical by subjects primed with ethical scenarios. This “ntrast effect,” however, is contingent upon individual differences. Specifically, subjects with high (versus low) needs for cognition are more likely to process and use the information presented in the priming scenarios as a point of reference against which to judge the target situation, and hence more prone to the contrastive bias. Implications for avoiding unintentional moral relativism in business decision-making are discussed.

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