Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 17, Issue 5, pp 517–525 | Cite as

Points of Reference and Individual Differences As Sources of Bias in Ethical Judgments

  • Brett A. Boyle
  • Robert F. Dahlstrom
  • James J. Kellaris


The authors demonstrate that ethical judgments can be biased when previous judgments serve as a point of reference against which a current situation is judged. Scenarios describing ethical or unethical sales practices were used in an experiment to prime subjects who subsequently rated the ethics of an ethically ambiguous target scenario. The target tended to be rated as more ethical by subjects primed with unethical scenarios, and less ethical by subjects primed with ethical scenarios. This "contrast effect," however, is contingent upon individual differences. Specifically, subjects with high (versus low) needs for cognition are more likely to process and use the information presented in the priming scenarios as a point of reference against which to judge the target situation, and hence more prone to the contrastive bias. Implications for avoiding unintentional moral relativism in business decision-making are discussed.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Bettman, J. R. and M. Sujan: 1987, ‘Effect of Framing on Evalutaion of Comparable and Noncomparable Alternatives by Experts and Novice Consumers’, Journal of Consumer Research 14, 141–154.Google Scholar
  2. Cacioppo, J. T. and R. E. Petty: 1982, ‘The Need for Cognition’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 42, 116–131.Google Scholar
  3. Cacioppo, J. T., R. E. Petty and C. F. Kao: 1984, ‘The Efficient Assessment of the Need for Cognition’, Journal of Personality Assessment 48, 306–307.Google Scholar
  4. Dabholkar, P. A. and J. J. Kellaris: 1992, ‘Toward Understanding Marketing Students' Ethical Judgment of Controversial Personal Selling Practices’, Journal of Business Research 24( June), 313–329.Google Scholar
  5. Dubinsky, A. J., E. N. Berkowitz and W. Budelius: 1980, ‘Ethical Problems of Field Sales Personnel’, MSU Business Topics 28(Summer), 11–16.Google Scholar
  6. Dubinsky, A. J., M. A. Jolson, R. E. Michaels, M. Kotabe and Ch. U. Lim: 1992, ‘Ethical Percpetion of Field Sales Personnel: An Empirical Assessment’, Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management 12(Fall), 9–21.Google Scholar
  7. Ferrell, O. C. and L. G. Gresham: 1985, ‘A Contingency Framework for Understanding Ethical Decision Making in Marketing’, Journal of Marketing 49(Summer), 87–96.Google Scholar
  8. Fischoff, B.: 1983, ‘Predicting Frames’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition 9, 103–116.Google Scholar
  9. Helson, H.: 1964, Adaptation-Level Theory(Harper & Row, New York).Google Scholar
  10. Herr, P. M., S. J. Sherman and R. H. Fazio: 1982, ‘On the Consequences of Priming: Assimilation and Contrast Effects’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 19, 323–340.Google Scholar
  11. Higgins, E. T. and L. Lurie: 1983, ‘Context, Categorization, and Recall: The “Change of Standard” Effect’, Cognition Psychology 15, 525–547.Google Scholar
  12. Higgins, E. T. and C. Stangor: 1988, ‘A “Change of Standard” Perspective on the Relations Among Context, Judgment, and Memory’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54, 181–192.Google Scholar
  13. Hunt, S. D. and A. Z. Vasquez-Parraga: 1993, ‘Organizational Consequences, Marketing Ethics and Salesforce Supervision’, Journal of Marketing Research 30(February), 78–90.Google Scholar
  14. Hunt, S. D. and S. J. Vitell: 1986, ‘A General Theory of Marketing Ethics’, Journal of Macromarketing 6(Spring), 5–16.Google Scholar
  15. Kahneman, D. and A. Tversky: 1979, ‘Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk’, Econometrica 47, 263–291.Google Scholar
  16. Kahneman, D. and A. Tversky: 1984, ‘Choices, Values, and Frames’, American Psychologist 39, 341–350.Google Scholar
  17. Kellaris, J. J., B. A. Boyle and R. F. Dahlstrom: 1994, ‘On the Framing and Situational Ethics’, Marketing Letters 5(1), 69–75.Google Scholar
  18. Keppel, G.: 1982, Design and Analysis-A Researcher's Handbook2/E (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ).Google Scholar
  19. Levin, I. P. and G. J. Gaeth: 1988, ‘How Consumers are Affected by the Framing of Attribute Information Before and After Consuming the Product’, Journal of Consumer Research 15, 374–378.Google Scholar
  20. Manis, M. and G. Armstrong: 1971, ‘Contrast Effects in Verbal Output’, Journal of Experimental Cognitive Psychology 7, 381–388.Google Scholar
  21. McNeil, B. J. S. Pauker, H. Sox Jr. and A. Tversky: 1982, ‘On the Elicitation of Preferences for Alternative Therapies’, New England Journal of Medicine 306, 1259–1262.Google Scholar
  22. Parducci, A.: 1968, ‘The Relativism of Absolute Judgments’, Scientific American 219, 84–90.Google Scholar
  23. Puto, C. P.: 1987, ‘The Framing of Buying Decisions’, Journal of Consumer Research 14(December), 301–315.Google Scholar
  24. Qualls, W. J. and C. P. Puto: 1989, ‘Organizational Climate and Decision Framing: An Integrated Approach to Analyzing Industrial Buying Decisions’, Journal of Marketing Research 26(May), 179–192.Google Scholar
  25. Schoemaker, P.: 1982, ‘The Expected Utility Model: Its Variants, Purposes, Evidenced and Limitations’, Journal of Economic Literature 20, 529–563.Google Scholar
  26. Sherman, S. J., K. Ahlm and L. Berman: 1978, ‘Contrast Effects and Their Relationship to Subsquent Behavior’, Journal of Experimental Psychology 14, 340–350.Google Scholar
  27. Thaler, R.: 1985, ‘Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice’, Marketing Science 4(Summer), 199–214.Google Scholar
  28. Thaler, R. and E. J. Johnson: 1990, ‘Gambling with the House Money and Trying to Break Even: The Effects of Prior Outcomes on Risky Choice’, Management Science 36, 643–660.Google Scholar
  29. Tsalikis, J. and D. J. Fritsche: 1989, ‘Business Ethics: A Literature Review with a Focus on Marketing Ethics’, Journal of Business Ethics 8, 695–743.Google Scholar
  30. Tversky, A. and D. Kahneman: 1981, ‘The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice’, Science 185, 1124–1131.Google Scholar
  31. von Neumann, J. and O. Morgenstern: 1944, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior(Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ).Google Scholar
  32. Wotruba, T. R.: 1990, ‘A Comprhensive Framework for the Analysis of Ethical Behavior, with a Focus on Sales Organizations’, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management 10(Spring), 29–42.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brett A. Boyle
  • Robert F. Dahlstrom
  • James J. Kellaris

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations