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From Chapter 5, When We Ignore Unethical Behavior

There are many reasons why we do not notice the unethical behavior of others. To begin with, we are busy paying attention to other things. As we will discuss in more detail in chapter 6, we pay attention to goals for which we receive rewards and too often ignore those for which we do not. We are not usually rewarded for noticing the unethical behavior of others. What's more, human beings have a remarkable ability to overlook the obvious. In one study, psychologist Ulric Neisser asked his Cornell undergraduate students to watch a video in which two visu ally superimposed groups of three players were passing basketballs.2 One trio wore white shirts, and the other trio wore dark shirts. The students in Neisser's study were instructed to count the number of passes made among the trio wearing white shirts. The dual video, as well as the grainy nature of the film, made the task moderately complex. Before reading on, feel free to watch the video above and try to accurately count the passes among players wearing the white shirts. As you may have guessed, this is a trick experiment. While you were busy counting passes, you— like most people who try this task— probably failed to see a woman who clearly and unexpectedly walked through the basketball court carrying an open umbrella. (If you don't believe she was there, go look again.) Only one in five of Neisser's Cornell undergraduate participants spotted the woman with the umbrella. When we show this video in our classrooms to MBA and executive students, far fewer than one in five people notice the woman, just as we failed to notice her when we first watched the video. Because they are focusing closely on one task— in this case, counting passes— people miss very obvious information in their visual world. Neisser's video offers evidence that our focus on one set of tasks can blind us to other readily available information in our environment. Moving beyond simple busyness and distraction as an answer, using the lens of behavioral ethics, this chapter maps the multiple reasons why we overlook the unethical behavior of others. Why do we look the other way when, objectively, it should be clear to us that someone is doing something wrong?