President-elect Donald Trump has spent his adult life creating and operating a vast business empire. Some believe this makes him uniquely qualified to run the country, but it also creates unique problems that should not be underestimated.
Recently the ethics lawyers for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama urged members of the Electoral College not to elect Trump unless he first sells his real estate and business holdings.
Their legal argument is based on the Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause,” which is essentially an anti-bribery provision intended to prevent political officials such as the president from accepting gifts from foreign governments.
What we should be more concerned about is the ethics rather than the legality of it.
Virtually every company and governmental unit has conflict-of-interest rules because common sense and vast amounts of psychological evidence prove that conflicts of interest affect people’s judgments. Sometimes conflicts cause people to consciously “take the money and run.”
More worrisome than conscious wrongdoing is the fact that study after study shows that an unconscious self-serving bias often affects the way people gather information, process information and remember information.
For that reason, even people with the best intentions often inadvertently misinterpret data and make decisions that favor their own economic and other interests in ways that objective third parties find indefensible.
For example, numerous studies indicate that if compensation arrangements are altered so that doctors receive more money for performing a certain procedure than they did before, they will tend to conclude that this procedure is more frequently appropriate for their patients. Similar studies find similar results in every profession that has been studied.
Self-interest often alters a person’s assessments of policy and can even change a person’s mind about what is right and wrong. Those who work on Wall Street, for example, who have the opportunity to engage in insider trading often think that insider trading is not as unethical as the rest of us do.
And wealthy people who can profit from bogus tax shelters tend to judge tax fraud less harshly than do poor people who could never profit from tax scams.
We have already seen a possible example of the self-serving bias during the campaign. Trump proposed barring Muslims from entering the United States. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by threatening to remove the Trump brand from all Trump properties in the country.
After a failed coup that led Erdogan to harshly repress dissidents, a range of responses was possible. Trump chose not to condemn the repression, saying “I don’t think we have the right to lecture.” Thereafter, there were no more calls by Erdogan to rename the Trump properties in Turkey. Could the substance of Trump’s second remark have been consciously or unconsciously affected by his financial interests? The answer seems to be yes.
Every person is affected by the self-serving bias. But Trump, as president, is a particularly worrisome case for three reasons. First is the simple scale of his empire. Research demonstrates that the greater the amount at stake, the greater the impact of the self-serving bias.
Second, Trump has spent his life judging his success by the amount of money he has made. That metric, which he touted throughout the campaign, will be difficult for him to abandon.
Third, the self-serving bias is devilishly difficult for us to combat because we all have a tendency to be overconfident in our own abilities and in our own ethics. Most of us tend to naturally believe that we are good people who will do the right thing when faced with an ethical challenge, which often causes us to act without proper moral reflection.
Trump’s overwhelming self-confidence appeals to his supporters because it makes him appear to be a strong leader, but it also makes him peculiarly susceptible to the impact of the self-serving bias, which may account for his failure to seriously consider minimizing his financial conflicts of interest.
Psychologists have long argued that it is an aspect of character to guard against and avoid self-serving biases. Thus far, President-elect Trump has done little to demonstrate this character feature, but he has a golden opportunity to do so.
Robert Prentice teaches business ethics at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin where he is faculty director of the “Ethics Unwrapped” video series and educational program.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman and the McAllen Monitor.
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