Research Blog

Resources for Learning More about Behavioral Ethics (May 29, 2019)

Behavioral insights into ethical decision-making begin with some primary assumptions: people make decisions instinctively rather than rationally, they tend to believe they are more ethical than they actually are, and they tend to create “shortcuts” to decision-making that introduce biases leading to less than optimal ethical outcomes.[1]  In prior posts, we discussed salience, framing, and anchoring biases. These are only a few of many cognitive biases that have been identified and can affect ethical decision-making.

For those who are interested in learning more about behavioral ethics, The McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin hosts a website called, Ethics Unwrapped, which houses over one hundred free videos addressing behavioral ethics and ethics concepts, along with case studies.  Another resource, Ethical Systems, housed in NYU’s Stern School of Business provides a “Research” tab where you can freely access reviews of existing research and best practices using insights from the behavioral and management sciences.

Internationally, the Institute of Business Ethics also offers various publications that provide useful and practical guidance on behavioral ethics and ethical culture.


For practical lessons in public sector integrity policy, the OECD’s website and its report on Behavioural Insights for Public Integrity offer concrete recommendations for incorporating behavioral insights into anti-corruption policies. The United Kingdom’s  Behavioural Insights Team website is another source for publications and blog posts discussing the specific application of behavioral interventions to discrete government programs to improve public policy outcomes.


Finally, for those seeking peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary research on behavioral insights and its relevance to public policy, the Journal of Behavioral Public Administration  is self-described as an “open access journal that focuses on behavioral and experimental research in public administration, broadly defined.”  Similarly, Behavioural Public Policy offers free access to articles on a variety of behavioral research.

As ethics officials, understanding the patterns in human behavior can help us anticipate problems and take steps to prevent them.  There is a wealth of research available to help us do just that.  The IEG is pleased to be able to share these resources with you. 


[1]Drumwright, Minette & Prentice, Robert & Biasucci, Cara. (2015). Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education.


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Anchoring for Ethics (December 17, 2018)

What is anchoring?

Anchoring is a term used in psychology to describe the tendency to rely too heavily, or "anchor," on one aspect or piece of information when making decisions. Very often the information you anchor upon is the first or most emphasized piece of information you receive on a subject. In situations where information involves a numerical value, a bias is set toward that value and that value becomes the basis for subsequent decision-making.

Why should ethics practitioners care about anchoring?

When we introduce ethics concepts early, especially ones involving “numerical values,” and emphasize them repeatedly, that component displaces broader considerations in ethical decision-making. For example:

  • How often as ethics officials have we heard employees make reference to “the $20 rule,” or worse still “the $25 rule,” when talking about the gifts from outside sources restrictions? 
  • What are the dangers of having employees believe, as they often do, that they don’t have to worry about any financial holdings under $15,000?

In the case of both the gifts from outside sources provisions and the part 2640 de minimis exemptions, the exception/exemption dollar value displaces the actual prohibition in the employee’s mind and it becomes the “rule.”  If that number is taken out of context, the exception/exemption is likely to be interpreted and applied incorrectly, and the mental shortcut could very well lead to violations of law and regulation.

Likewise for us as ethics officials, by anchoring on regulatory “numbers” we may be compromising actual efficiency and effectiveness in our financial disclosure reviews and in our ethics education programs. For example:

  • How often do we grant financial disclosure filing extensions in anything other than 30, 45 and 90-day increments?
  • In planning our ethics education for employees, how strongly do we rely on a single, one-hour event as the mechanism for achieving compliance?

A filing extension of 6, 10 or 22 days may be all the employee needs to complete and submit a report beyond the initial filing deadline.  Similarly, a brief discussion about ethics at monthly staff meetings may not only be more relevant and effective in preventing actual ethics violations, but in the aggregate may exceed any minimal compliance requirements.

So how do we deal with “anchoring” by both employees and ourselves when administering the ethics program?

As human beings we all employ shortcuts in our thinking and decision-making. So, anchoring is somewhat unavoidable. What we can do is control which pieces of information become the anchors.

For example, in our new employee orientation, we should introduce and emphasize the duties and obligations of public service—loyalty to law, selfless service and responsible stewardship. Under this broad cultural umbrella of public service expectations we can introduce the principles and standards, and explicitly tie them back to the broader public service obligations. By anchoring employees on three broad concepts, we make it more likely they will be incorporated into future decision-making.

Likewise, subsequent ethics education should focus on ethical decision-making through a public service lens. If we are inclined to anchor, we should consider anchoring on effectiveness. What is my ethics education program trying to achieve and for whom? How can I use my limited resources to greatest effect?

We should also rethink any “default” policies we have in place. For example, if you have established a standard 45-day initial filing extension, consider re-examining whether a default is prudent or necessary, or whether the number of days is appropriate.  

The key to avoiding, or in appropriate circumstances, effectively using anchoring in our ethics programs is to be aware of our human proclivity to anchor.  We can use our knowledge of anchoring to carefully decide which pieces of information to highlight so that we are using anchors that encourage rather than undermine ethical outcomes. 


Framing: How We Communicate About "Ethics" Matters  (October 9, 2018)

What is framing?

Generally speaking, framing refers to the frames of reference that inform and guide our decision-making—that is the “set of ideas, conditions, or assumptions that determine how something will be approached, perceived, or understood.”[1] (Merriam Webster on-line)

For example, when our communications about “ethics” begin and end exclusively with the application of the law and regulations, we are framing “ethics” as a “legal question.” If we never introduce any other frame of reference, employees may believe that any action is ethical merely because it is not expressly prohibited by law or regulation.


Why should ethics practitioners care about framing?

The way we communicate with employees matters. Our choice of words, the information we emphasize, and how we encourage employees to frame the question of “what should I do?” all affect what they believe ethics is and how they incorporate it into their decision-making.  Is ethics only a question of, “is it legal?” If not, then our communications about ethics must consistently include a more expansive “frame of reference.” 

Ethics training that focuses exclusively on explaining the rules and the penalties to individuals for violations may be framing ethical decision-making as a personal cost-benefit analysis affecting only the employee—e.g., what are the personal risks and rewards to me of taking a certain action?  Similarly, ethics advice that limits itself only to questions of “legality” may be communicating that everything that is not expressly prohibited by law or regulation is permitted.

For these reasons, a more expansive frame of reference for ethical decision-making should include considerations beyond “legality” and the costs and benefits to the individual employee. For example, it should include questions like: What are the risks to the agency and the effects on its mission of the employee’s proposed action? How will the action appear to an outside observer? And how will this action affect citizens’ trust in government?  


Okay, so how we communicate about ethics matters.  What can we do to get better results?

When we talk about ethics, through our education programs and in our advice and counseling, we need to emphasize the broader importance of ethical decision-making.  We should emphasize employees’ roles in protecting the reputations of their agencies and the integrity of the day-to-day work they perform.  We should discuss the oath they take to serve their fellow citizens, their personal values, and the duty they have to each other to support an ethical workplace.  We should make clear that compliance is a mere step in the direction of honorable service.[2]

And, ethics officials shouldn’t do any of these things alone.  Agency leaders, managers, and employees themselves should help deliver the message, both inside and outside our organizations.  Any time that employees get together is an opportunity to reinforce the duties and obligations of public service, and to remind ourselves of the role our conduct plays in maintaining trust in government.   A well-framed message about the importance of an ethical agency culture is the first step toward achieving this goal.


[1] Tversky and Kahneman define a decision frame as ‘the decision-maker’s conception of the act, outcomes and contingencies associated with a particular choice.’ Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and psychology of choice. Science211, 453-458.

[2] For additional discussion about compliance versus values framing see Scott Killingsworth, Modeling the Message: Communicating Compliance Through Organizational Culture, Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, Volume 25


Salience: Keeping Ethics Front of Mind (July 19, 2018)

What is “salience” and what does it have to do with government ethics?

Salience is the quality of standing out.  Information that is salient is more likely to influence decision making. As ethics practitioners, we know that it is critical that ethics be salient to employees when they are making important decisions.

As ethics practitioners, what do we need to know to improve ethical “salience”? 

It turns out that timing is critical to improving salience. Keeping ethics at the front of your employee's mind requires ethical reminders very close in time to the action or decision we hope to influence. Timely ethical prompts make ethics more salient to the decision an employee is about to make. [i]

What are practical ways that I can keep ethics “salient” for employees in my organization?

As ethics practitioners we can incorporate timely priming into our ethics education and communications strategies. For example we can:

  • Supplement annual briefings with timely email reminders
  • Remind employees of ethics standards ahead of major initiatives or decisions
  • Enlist supervisors to deliver periodic ethics messages at recurring events like staff meetings
  • Encourage agency leaders to incorporate ethics themes into internal communications
  • Attend kick-off meetings for major projects and initiatives to provide short ethics briefings

If you think of other ways to make ethics “salient” in your organization, let us know and we’ll share them here. (Email to

What’s next?

In our next entry, we’re going to talk about the importance of “framing” to ethics and decision making. Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with building houses or displaying paintings.


[i] Investigations into the factors that increase or decrease cheating showed that “timely” moral reminders or ethical prompts significantly reduced participants’ propensity to cheat, even in the face of financial incentives and in the absence of any threat of penalty. See Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational 195-216 (2008)

See also: Dan Ariely TedTalk

Endorsement Disclaimer--Reference on this Web site to any specific private person’s or organization’s products or services does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. Government or OGE.



Ethics and Failed Decision Making (June 28, 2018)

Kicking Off a Series on Cognitive Biases: The Theory of “Bounded Rationality”


What is “bounded rationality” and what does it have to do with my ethics program?

Humans’ rational decision making fails in predictable ways.  As ethics officials, the more familiar we become with these patterns of failure the better we are able to predict problems and intervene to promote ethical outcomes in our agencies. Basically, we can use this knowledge to help the employees in our agencies make better decisions and avoid ethical problems. 

How does it work?

The theory of “bounded rationality”[i] suggests that human beings are only partially “rational” in their decision-making; they are limited in their ability to process information in order to recognize and solve complex problems. Instead, humans use mental short cuts or “heuristics” to simplify the information they receive and the manner in which they process it. These shortcuts lead to “cognitive biases”[ii] or mistakes in reasoning. There are many types of cognitive biases that have been identified and that may affect ethical decision-making.

As ethics officials, we can use increased understanding of these biases to more effectively administer our ethics programs. We have attached a paper that provides ideas.

What’s next?

Now that we know about the overarching theory of bounded rationality, we can explore specific patterns of failure, or “cognitive biases” so that we can consider how to improve our ethics programs. In our next entry we’ll take a look at “salience bias” and what it means for ethics practitioners.    


[i] “Bounded rationality” is a term that was coined by Herbert Simon in Models of Man.

[ii] “Cognitive biases” was introduced by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, See for example, "Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases". Science. Vol 185, Issue 4157 (27 September 1974)

See also (pdf)—Using Behavioural Ethics to Improve your Ethics Programme, published by the Institute of Business Ethics

Endorsement Disclaimer--Reference on this Web site to any specific private person’s or organization’s products or services does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. Government or OGE.




Welcome to the Institute for Ethics in Government Research Blog (April 24, 2018)

Why a “Research Blog,” you might ask?  

Behavioral ethics is a growing field, one that incorporates findings from research in behavioral economics, cognitive science, and organizational psychology to identify the drivers of ethical and unethical behavior within organizations. Our goal in the blog is to share with the ethics community summaries and links to this research and the insights they contain. Together with the community, we hope to apply those insights to agency ethics programs to help foster a strong and resilient ethical culture within executive branch agencies. 

Organizational culture has been shown to be one of the strongest drivers of behavior.    By organizational culture we mean not only the formal rules, but the social behaviors, norms, values, beliefs, rituals, and stories, shared by members of an organization. To foster an ethical culture, we must address the way the work of the agency is actually conducted, not the way we say it is. We must understand the way people actually behave, not the way we think they should.  

Most importantly, it is the leadership at all levels of an organization who play a critical role in shaping ethical culture. This blog will focus on various aspects of an ethical culture and insights into organizations and human beings that can help us create ethical cultures. 

If you come across something you think we should read, please let us know.  You can email us at


A resource on various facets of compliance and ethics work, Head to Head: A Conversation on Behavioral Science and Ethics

A recent report by the OECD, Behavioural Insights for Public Integrity, Harnessing the Human Factor to Counter Corruption


Endorsement Disclaimer--Reference on this Web site to any specific private person’s or organization’s products or services does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by the U.S. Government or OGE.

Research Materials

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