Public Release: 

Role models influence ethical behavior

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 standards.

"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 bargaining.

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) conscience-based decision-making.

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.


The complete study, "The Influence of Role Models on Negotiation Ethics of College Students," by Perry and Nixon, has just been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Business Ethics.

By Peg Herring, 541-737-9180

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.