making local government more ethical

Blind Spots IV — Egocentrism

Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, the authors of the new book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It (Princeton University Press), point out that egocentrism is in our nature. We naturally see the world from our point of view. We squeeze what we see and experience into our view of ourselves. We never get too far away from the baby's concept that the world exists for us, even if no longer for us alone.

Egocentrism (what they call the "egocentric bias") is at the heart of unethical behavior, in the government ethics sense. When the public interest conflicts with an offical's self-interest, that self-interest is what leads the official to deal irresponsibly with the conflict. It is the official's self-serving judgments that lead him to different conclusions than others have regarding what is a fair solution to a conflict situation.

Bazerman and Tennbrunsel note that "we tend to first determine our preference for a certain outcome on the basis of self interest, and then justify this preference on the basis of fairness by altering the importance of the attributes that affect what is fair. ... This difference in the way information is processed isn't just strategic; it happens whether we want it to or not. Our minds actually absorb the information that is advantageous to us and ignore information that isn't."

The result is that our judgment is clouded, for example, our judgment about whether our conduct would be viewed as unethical. The authors have found that most people overestimate the likelihood that they will prevail in a law suit. "The facts they rely on for their estimates are biased in a way that favors a win. Missing are those facts that don't support their case."

This is an area where they feel normal training does not work. "Teaching individuals about the insidious influence of egocentrism has been shown to be effective at teaching them to recognize the egocentrism of others. Unfortunately, such training on egocentrism doesn't reduce the influence of egocentrism on our own behavior. While we recognize that others are egocentric, we don't believe the bias affects us — an egocentric interpretation of the egocentric bias!"

The authors turn to John Rawls and his proposition that fairness should be assessed under a "veil of ignorance." That is, we should judge a situation without knowing the role we ourselves play in it. For example, when dividing up a pie, the person who slices it should not be the one to take the first slice. That way, the slicer has no idea which piece he will get, and will not cut a bigger slice for himself.

This is effectively an argument for independent ethics advice and enforcement. The official who has a conflict should not be the person who chooses how to handle the conflict. An ethics officer should do this. If by keeping a conflict a secret, an official does decide to handle it herself, she may have to give back the piece of pie she took.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics