To improve ethics, changing people matters less, and changing situations matters more, than you probably think

Jonathan Haidt and I recently had the good fortune to have lunch with David Einhorn (the founder of Greenlight Capital) and his team at the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust (EFCT).  EFCT works on promoting empathy to help people get along better.  It’s a great mission and has substantial overlap with Jon’s Civil Politics project.  To prepare we tried to think through how we could best help EFCT accomplish their goals.  Three things stood out that are relevant to Ethical Systems: 

1) People matter less, and situations matter more, than you probably think

2) “Homo duplex” and behavioral ethics are the new behavioral economics for flourishing

3) We need a clearer understanding of the tools available to promote cooperation

This post is about the first point.

Shaping the path is much more effective than training the elephant.  Or in other words, people matter less, and situations matter more, than you probably think. 

What if the person didn’t actually matter that much and what was really important for improving ethical behavior was the situation?

This study on prosocial behavior, which was popularized by the Heath Brothers’ excellent book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, showed “charitable” people helped 8% of the time and “uncharitable” people didn’t help at all.  Then, when they shaped the path (made some minor tweaks in how the information was presented) 42% of the charitable people helped and 25% of the uncharitable people helped (three times as many as the charitable people in the original condition!).

Just to be clear: Uncharitable people with a bit of information were three times more charitable than people who were considered very charitable to begin with.

This should give all of us working on increasing cooperation and behavior change pause. 

We need more studies to better understand where which path-based interventions outperform which personality-based interventions but the lesson, and one of the central points of the Heaths’ book (as well as a lot of our work at Ethical Systems), is that shaping the path can be a lot more effective than training the elephant.  Don’t misunderstand me, personality and personnel are tremendously important as we highlight on our research page on that topic, but in a resource-constrained world, why wouldn’t you choose the higher-return and easier-to-implement idea?

In a nutshell, that’s the point of Ethical Systems.  We’re focused on shaping the path (designing the system) and bringing people from 0% to 25% and from 8% to 42%, not on getting people to go from 0-8%.

More on Homo duplex and behavioral ethics as the new behavioral economics for flourishing in part two.


Great post. As applied to promoting corporate compliance and business ethics, one way to put it is that we should think less in terms of "Do I trust this person?" and more in terms of "Do I trust this situation?"