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Role models influence
January 9, 2006 - Oregon State University
As the United States continues to grapple with ethical
scandals in government and business, researchers at Oregon State
University and Texas A&M University are examining the ethical behavior of
college students - particularly students' behavior in negotiations.
"Negotiation is defined as the attempt to find an
acceptable solution to a conflict between two or more parties," said Greg
Perry, an agricultural economist in OSU's College of Agricultural
Sciences. "By that definition, everyone is involved in negotiations every
day, at work, with family, or in their communities."
Perry and colleague Clair Nixon from Texas A&M
University surveyed more than 1,600 undergraduates in Texas, Oregon and
Michigan to learn what influence different role models have on the ethical
attitudes of college students in negotiation situations.
They found that students whose role models included
clergy, Boy Scout leaders, friends and college advisers exhibited less
willingness to adopt questionably ethical behavior in negotiation
situations. Those whose role models were journalists and coaches tended to
be more accepting of questionable ethical behavior.
The authors of the study found college students a
particularly interesting target audience.
"They are a fairly homogeneous population, most between
18 and 22 years old, and all going through an important transitional phase
in life," said Nixon, the PricewaterhouseCoopers Accounting Excellence
Professor at Texas A&M. "Their ethical attitudes are shaped but still open
to change. They are facing negotiations for the first time with roommates,
landlords, managers, even school officials."
Perry and Nixon asked students to rate the
appropriateness of 16 different tactics used in negotiations. Some were
traditional competitive bargaining tactics, such as pretending you are in
no hurry to reach an agreement or asking for more than what you'll settle
for. Other tactics included misrepresenting information, making false
promises, and attacking an opponent's network.
The researchers also asked the students to rate the
importance of 16 types of role models, from parents and grandparents to
employers, coaches and journalists. They found that for most students,
role models can be highly influential in conveying ethical standards, in
both good and bad ways.
"For example, 96 percent of the respondents named
parents as role models, but parents' effect for good or bad seems to vary
a great deal," Nixon said.
However, friends - the second most commonly identified
role model after parents - seemed to help raise most students' ethical
"Journalists as role models seem to elicit more
questionable ethical attitudes in students," said Perry, who heads OSU's
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. "Coaches generally also
seem to have a negative effect on the ethical attitudes of their charges."
"Categories of positive ethical role models include
college advisers, clergy, and Boy Scout leaders," Perry said.
In addition, he said, religious individuals seem to be
less willing to use unethical methods in negotiating and competitive
The researchers tested four major philosophical theories
used to explain ethical behavior. Although the theories are complex, they
can be described roughly as: 1) "the ends justify the means"; 2)
rules-based decision-making; 3) community-based standards; and 4)
The researchers found that students with strong
end-means and community-based ethical philosophies exhibited strong
tendencies toward less than ethical behavior. Individuals with strong
rule-based ethical philosophy, high levels of religiosity, and those with
a cooperative attitude in negotiations tended to adopt higher ethical
standards in negotiations.