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Why Traditional Ethics Training Has Limited Impact on Ethical Behavior

Steve Winegar, Ph.D.

Immediate Past Chair of the IPSLEI Board

March 17, 2024

"Most people who engage in unethical behavior don’t do so intentionally and deliberately. They fall into it by making small, seemingly inconsequential choices."

-Catherine Sanderson in Why We Act P.161

We have all sat through the ethics class where we are taught how to make good decisions. Be it the “Bell Book and Candle” model, the “front page of the newspaper model,” or “what would your mother think” model, or one of the other ethical decision-making models, the emphasis has been on teaching people how to make good decisions. The belief was that if you teach people to make good ethical decisions, they will always behave ethically.

Unfortunately, real life experiences have shown that that teaching people to make good ethical decisions does not lead to ethical behavior – there is still a lot of unethical behavior that occurs. Why?

White sculpture of a hand holding a brain against a green background
Embracing Knowledge

Over the past 50 years researchers have come to understand human behavior and have come up with explanations for behaviors that seem irrational. One of the best resources for understanding seemingly irrational behavior is Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman lays out what the research tells about why people can not only behave in seemingly irrational ways, but also why people will even behave against their own self-interest. To understand these behaviors Kahneman introduces the research that supports the “dual process” theory of behavior. Human behavior is the result of two processes in our brains: the slow, deliberate, reasoned, rational process, and the fast, intuitive, reactive, and sometimes irrational process. The fast, intuitive, reactive processes are often referred to as “non-conscious” processing because it occurs outside of our conscious awareness.

By some estimates we make around 35,000 decisions every day, and we do not have the mental (cognitive) capacity to think rationally and reason through each of those decisions. Just to make it through the day, we have to rely on the non-cognitive, intuitive, reactive side of our brains.

We run into problems, and potentially unethical behavior, when we rely on the fast process to guide our behavior. The research has shown that the fast, or system one processing, makes use of many heuristics, or decision-making shortcuts. These heuristics can lead people into unethical behavior, often without the person even being consciously aware of what is happening.

Traditional ethics training takes what has been referred to as a “naïve” approach, based on a

misconception of how behavior is generated and the importance of external factors that influence behavior (Nolan et al 2008).

To be effective, ethics training needs to include an introduction into the dual process model, how external factors that can influence behavior, and how the non-conscious processes can lead to behavior that is contrary to our values and principles.


Steve Winegar is an experienced public safety management, leadership, and education consultant based in Salem, Oregon. Steve has numerous years’ experience as a Police Chief, University Professor, and public administration and ethics consultant.

Steve maybe contacted at



Sanderson, C. A. (2020). Why we act: Turning bystanders into moral rebels. Harvard University


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2008).

Normative social influence is underdetected. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 34(7),


Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 35(4), 250.

Decision-Making: One of Our Greatest Challenges Today accessed 02/26/2024 at:

Copyright 2024 – Steve Winegar

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