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Empathy and narcissism in business students

September 30, 2010 1 comment

Ebenezer Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge

Throughout my encounters in the few business classes that I’ve taken, I noticed that students are taught in subtle, yet discernible ways that competitiveness and risk-taking are valued qualities that make you a survivor in the world which revolves around money. If you have not internalized those qualities, you will have a severe handicap when competing with others for the limited resources available in the economic system. Despite that in one or two classes business students were taught that empathy and understanding would enhance their leadership status, generally students were advised to adhere to strict utilitarian goals that would enhance profitability.

The most depressing fact, however, is that the invisible hand is not always designed to make others better off after seeking our own self-interest (which I equate with profitability). Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher and the father of free economics, disagreed with that:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (source)

Although the invisible hand can have and does have a positive influence, if given the opportunity to cheat, many self-interested individuals in the business world would readily do so, despite bringing harm to others. The evidence, which might not be highly generalizable, is given below.

Several researchers wanted to find out if high rates of narcissism among business students would predict less ethical decision making, and if high rates of empathy would make business students more prone to make more ethical decisions.

In order to do this, Brown et. al administered a web survey to 244 students, out of which 97 were finance students, 73 management students, 42 marketing students, and 32 accounting students. The survey was designed to find (1) “information about students’ psychological profiles, and how they felt they would act in certain ethical situations,” and (2)¬† information about “students’ demographic and academic backgrounds.” Additionally, researchers compared whether those majoring in finance and accounting are more likely to be insensitive and and show self-interest than students in management and marketing majors.

In the first part of the survey, students were asked how they felt they would act in situations where they would receive a high-payoff  by acting dishonestly. They were given two situations, one of which described a business setting, and one that focused on a more personal context. A sample question is provided below:

In an effort to increase productivity, the owner of a small business has ordered ten personal computers for use by his staff. When the UPS shipment arrives, he notices that the invoice from the mail-order house bills only nine PCs, even though all ten were included with the shipment. The owner has two options. (1) He can inform the mail-order house of its error and ask to be billed for the correct amount; or (2) he can pay the amount shown on the invoice and take no further action….If YOU were the owner in the situation described above, what are the chances you would inform the mail-order house of its mistake and ask to be billed for the correct amount?

The students were required to provide their answers on a Likert scale, which ranged from 0-1% (virtually no chance) to 100 % (virtually certain), divided into 11 increments.

After that, students were asked to give responses on a range of selfism (narcissism) questions and empathy questions. For the selfism questions students had to answer on another Likert scale whether they agree or disagree with statements such as, “Thinking of yourself is no sin in this world today,” or “Getting ahead in life depends mainly on thinking of yourself first.” For the empathy questions, such as “I love to help others,” students followed the same procedure. These questions were asked to get a profile about students’ narcissistic and empathic tendencies.

Researchers found that empathy and narcissism were good predictors of how students would act in a proxy ethical decision-making setting. Students who exhibited high rates of narcissism were more likely to answer for the sample question given above that they would not reveal the mistake in the mail-order for the 10 computers. Additionally, researchers found that students who are in accounting and finance majors are more likely to act unethically when compared to students in management and marketing majors.

Brown et. al advise us, however, that the findings do not overrule the possibility that students selecting to major in business may display callous tendencies before they self select their majors. It might be that the nature of the profession is unrelated to ethical decision-making.

References

Brown, T. A., Sautter, J. A., Littvay, L., Sautter, A. C. & Bearnes, B. (2010). Ethics and Personality: Empathy and Narcissism as Moderators of Ethical Decision Making in Business Students. Journal of Education for Business, 85(4), 203-208. doi:10.1080/08832320903449501

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