Gray Areas in Accounting
Every profession is bound by written and unwritten rules and policies; some of them are set by organizations while others are an integral part of the occupation you choose. For example, doctors have to swear by the Hippocratic Oath, lawyers cannot divulge any privileged attorney-client conversations, and priests cannot reveal what was said to them in the confessional. The same kind of ethical code exists in the profession of accountancy because it is a means of public service. As Robert H. Montgomery put it, “Accountants and the accountancy profession exist as a means of public service; the distinction which separates a profession from a mere means of livelihood is that the profession is accountable to standards of the public interest, and beyond the compensation paid by clients.”
However, accountants are plagued by deep ethical dilemmas – there may be times when their employers ask them to twist and tweak the financial position of the company because they’ve had a bad year. The usual spiel given is that they’re definitely going to rake in the profits in the months that follow and that the deficits that have been covered up this year will more than be taken care of in the years to come. So the accountant is left wondering if he/she should be loyal to their professional ethics or show loyalty to the company that has hired them.
To overcome this type of problems, ethics is taught as a subject when you choose to study accountancy, because you are responsible not just to your employer, but also to the general public who believe in your reports and statements and take important decisions based on your word. An important question here if course is how effective are ethics classes, and even if they are successful how long would their influence last (a week? a month? a year? 2 years?). It is hard to believe that taking one or two classes on ethnics while studying accountancy is going to have a long term effect, and most likely higher standards and more strict definitions of continuing are needed (and maybe also higher frequency of education).
In other cases accountants are torn between reporting misbehaviors that are going on and between minding their own business – should they open up a can of worms and be at the center of a controversy or just take heart in the fact that they were true to the ethics of their profession? This type of cases present the “action inaction bias” where in general people view their own actions as much more important than inactions – which means that accountants are more likely to care about their own actions than about reporting the actions of others. Yet, accountants must remember that they are accountable for not just their actions, but also their non-actions, if either tend to affect the public adversely.
Overall the study of accountancy, and understanding its challenges is not only important in its own right, but it also provide an important case from which to view problems of conflicts of interest
This guest post is contributed by Omar Adams, he writes on the topic of online accounting degrees . He welcomes your comments at his email id: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Creating God in Our Own Image
Question: what are God’s views on affirmative action, the death penalty and same-sex marriage? Answer: whatever you want them to be.
That’s according to a recent study by Nicholas Epley, Benjamin Converse, Alexa Delbosc, George Monteleone and John Cacioppo, found that we tend to ascribe our own views to God.
Past studies have shown that when we reason about other people, we form an opinion of their views based on two sources: egocentric info (i.e., what we ourselves believe) and outside clues (what the other person has said and done, and what others have said about them).
Here, the researchers wanted to find out how much we rely on egocentric info to construe other people’s views, including God’s. To that end, they had devout American participants provide their personal views on various issues (abortion, death penalty, Iraq war, etc.), as well as what they thought were the views of others (Katie Couric, George Bush, the average American, God, etc.).
When the researchers compared participants’ personal views with the participants’ estimates of others’ views, they found one significant pattern: there was a correlation between participants’ personal views and their estimates of God’s view. For example, participants who said they were for same-sex marriage tended to also say that God was for same-sex marriage. And participants who said they were against same-sex marriage tended to also say that God was against same-sex marriage.
But this wasn’t the case for the other figures – Couric, Bush, average American, and so forth. Participants who said they were for same-sex marriage were statistically neither more nor less likely to say that Couric was for same-sex marriage than those who held the opposite view. In other words, what I say Couric thinks has nothing to do with what I myself think. But what I say God thinks has lots to do with what I myself think.
But correlation doesn’t imply causation, so to shed light on the direction of causality, the researchers ran two follow-up experiments. This time, instead of just surveying participants for current views, they induced participants to change their personal views by randomly assigning them to give speeches for or against the issue (death penalty) in front of a camera. Because it was random assignment, some people ended up arguing for their personal view, while others argued against it (many past studies have shown that in this context, people tend to shift their own opinions in a direction consistent with the speech they delivered). So, what about the other views (God’s, Couric’s etc.) – would the participant revise those as well?
Yes and no. The only other view that changed was God’s. As participants’ own views changed, so did their estimates of God’s view. The participant who started out very much for the death penalty but took on a more moderate view after arguing against the death penalty on camera also ascribed a more moderate view to God. But his estimates of the others’ views remained unchanged.
Overall these results suggest that God is a blank slate onto which we project whatever we choose to. We join religious communities that argue for our viewpoint and we interpret religious readings to support our personal positions.
p.s and happy birthday to my little sister Tali
NYT Year In Ideas
The New York Times Magazine publishes once a year the “years in ideas.”
This is the third year in a row that they are picking one of my papers, which is very nice of them.
It is also particularity nice of them that this year they picked two papers I am a part of.
One of the papers they picked this year is: The Counterfeit Self
Her is their report:
Wearing imitation designer clothing or accessories can fool others — but no matter how convincing the knockoff, you never, of course, fool yourself. It’s a small but undeniable act of duplicity. Which led a trio of researchers to suspect that wearing counterfeits might quietly take a psychological toll on the wearer.
To test their hunch, the psychologists Francesca Gino, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely asked two groups of young women to wear sunglasses taken from a box labeled either “authentic” or “counterfeit.” (In truth, all the eyewear was authentic, donated by a brand-name designer interested in curtailing counterfeiting.) Then the researchers put the participants in situations in which it was both easy and tempting to cheat.
In one situation, which was ostensibly part of a product evaluation, the women wore the shades while answering a set of very simple math problems — under heavy time pressure.
Afterward, given ample time to check their work, they reported how many problems they were able to answer correctly. They had been told they’d be paid for each answer they reported getting right, thus creating an incentive to inflate their scores. Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers knew each person’s actual score. Math performance was the same for the two groups — but whereas 30 percent of those in the “authentic” condition inflated their scores, a whopping 71 percent of the counterfeit-wearing participants did so.
Why did this happen? As Gino puts it, “When one feels like a fake, he or she is likely to behave like a fake.” It was notable that the participants were oblivious to this and other similar effects the researchers discovered: the psychological costs of cheap knockoffs are hidden. The study is currently in press at the journal Psychological Science.
Could other types of fakery also lead to ethical lapses? “It’s a fascinating research question,” says Gino, who studies organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina. “There are lots of situations on the job where we’re not true to ourselves, and we might not realize there might be unintended consequences.”
The second paper they picked this year is: The Drunken Ultimatum
Her is their report:
The so-called ultimatum game contains a world of psychological and economic mysteries. In a laboratory setting, one person is given an allotment of money (say, $100) and instructed to offer a second person a portion. If the second player says yes to the offer, both keep the cash. If the second player says no, both walk away with nothing.
The rational move in any single game is for the second person to take whatever is offered. (It’s more than he came in with.) But in fact, most people reject offers of less than 30 percent of the total, punishing offers they perceive as unfair. Why?
The academic debate boils down to two competing explanations. On one hand, players might be strategically suppressing their self-interest, turning down cash now in the hope that if there are future games, the “proposer” will make better offers. On the other hand, players might simply be lashing out in anger.
The researchers Carey Morewedge and Tamar Krishnamurti, of Carnegie Mellon University, and Dan Ariely, of Duke, recently tested the competing explanations — by exploring how drunken people played the game.
As described in a working paper now under peer review, Morewedge and Krishnamurti took a “data truck” to a strip of bars on the South Side of Pittsburgh (where participants were “often at a level of intoxication that is greater than is ethical to induce”) and also did controlled testing, in labs, of people randomly selected to get drunk.
The scholars were interested in drunkenness because intoxication, as other social-science experiments have shown, doesn’t fuzz up judgment so much as cause the drinker to overly focus on the most prominent cue in his environment. If the long-term-strategy hypothesis were true, drunken players would be more inclined to accept any amount of cash. (Money on the table generates more-visceral responses than long-term goals do.) If the anger/revenge theory were true, however, drunken players would become less likely to accept low offers: raw anger would trump money-lust.
In both setups, drunken players were less likely than their sober peers to accept offers of less than 50 percent of the total. The finding suggests, the authors said, that the principal impulse driving subjects was a wish for revenge.
Lets see if this trend continues….
Cashier-Free Honesty Cafes – Will They Work?
What if on your next coffee run, you discover that Starbucks has started running on the honor system? All the baristas are gone, and in their place, you find Tupperware filled with coins and bills. Would you pay for your daily soy Latte? Or would you “forget” to shell out the five bucks? Be honest.
This, of course, is only a thought experiment, as I doubt Starbucks will be adopting the honor policy anytime soon. But in another part of the world, it’s a real question that residents are facing on a daily basis. As the New York Times recently reported, the attorney general’s office in Indonesia has been opening thousands of “honesty cafes” as part of its anticorruption campaign.
The idea is that these cashier-free cafes will teach people to be honest and curb the country’s corruption problem (which pervades business, politics, and education) by inducing residents – especially the young – to get into the habit of practicing honesty. As the Times reports, “…the cafes are meant to force people to think constantly about whether they are being honest and, presumably, make them feel guilty if they are not.”
It’s a laudable plan, and a lovely feel-good idea, but will it work? I have my doubts.
First I think that people will also cheat to a certain extent in these honesty cafes (as they do in our experiments). In fact, according to one Indonesian student, they already do: “Some of my friends don’t pay the right amount.”
But that’s not the worst of it. I worry that these cafes won’t just fail to discourage cheating – they will actually lead to more of it. In some of our research, we found that cheating on one occasion makes it easier for people to cheat again on a later task, because it alters their self-concept. (Think of dieting as an analogy: once you break your diet once, it’s that much easier to say, “Oh what the hey, cut me a slice of that chocolate cake; I’ll count calories again tomorrow.”)
With honesty cafés widespread, residents will have more temptations to cheat, more occasion to cheat, and maybe this will make it such that they will find it easier to cheat again in other contexts.
Maybe these cafes are a good idea, maybe it will not have any effect, but I worry that it might make things worse.
3 irrational lessons from the Bernie Madoff scandal
The first chapter of the Bernie Madoff fiasco has come to a close, with Madoff pleading guilty to 11 charges of fraud yesterday.
Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme was horrific on many levels. But while we watch the next phase of the scandal, it’s important to ask: What lessons are we going to learn from this? I can see three lessons that relate to my work studying human irrationality — and in particular, some non-useful lessons we might learn.
One lesson that individuals and foundations are likely to take from the Madoff scandal is that in addition to diversifying their portfolio across several investments (stock, bonds, equity, cash), they also need to diversify their investments among several advisors. While the idea of diversifying among advisors has some merit — and it could reduce the exposure risk of another Madoff scandal — it will also make the task of managing portfolios much more difficult and much less efficient. Imagine that you have $1,000,000, split among four advisors. You will need a whole new level of coordination among them so they can have the right amount of cash, bonds, stocks etc., across all of your assets.
And I think that people will begin to over-diversify across investors. Why? Because when we have one large and salient instance in our minds, it can be so powerful that we overemphasize it. This same effect is very apparent in what we call “the identifiable victim effect,” and it is the reason that we overemphasize the risks of a shark attack, and underestimate the risks of riding a bike without a helmet. In general, what we find when there’s one single vivid event is that people overweight it — we focus on it too much. So that’s the first lesson: We’re going to learn from the Madoff scandal, but we are going to overdo it.
Another non-useful lesson that I think we will adopt is to start searching with more vigor for other bad apples. On one hand, it is clearly important to prevent more Madoffs, but at the same time I worry that as a consequence of searching for bad apples, we won’t pay enough attention to other financial behavior that might not be as badly wrong but that can actually have larger financial consequences.
In our research on dishonesty, we found that when we give people the opportunity to cheat, many of them cheat by a little bit, while very few cheat by a lot. In our experiments, we lost about $100 to the few people who cheated a lot — but lost thousands of dollars to the many people who each cheated by a bit. I suspect that this is a good reflection of cheating in the stock market, where the real financial cost of the egregious cheating by Madoff is actually a tiny fraction of all the “small” cheating carried out by “good” bankers.
The risk here is that if we pay too much attention to chasing bad apples, we might pay too little attention to the situations where the small dishonesties of many people can have large consequences (such as paying slightly higher salaries to cronies, making small changes to financial reports, doctoring documents, being slightly dishonest about mortgage terms), and in the process neglect the real economic source of the trouble we are in.
A third bad lesson that I think people will take from this concerns the way we define acceptable levels of cheating. In a study that may parallel Madoff’s egregious dishonesty, we again gave the participants the opportunity to cheat, while solving a puzzle quiz — but this time we hired an actor. This actor, posing as a fellow participant, stood up at the start of the session and declared that he had solved all the puzzles. Now the question is how his behavior would influence the other participants in the room — the ones who were watching him.
What we found is that when the actor wore a plain T-shirt, which made him part of the student group, cheating increased. On the other hand, when the actor wore a T-shirt of the rivaling university, cheating decreased. What this means is that when someone who is part of our own social group cheats, we find it more acceptable to cheat, but when people who are not part of our social group cheat, we want to distance ourselves from these people and cheat less.
Madoff was part of the financial elite — part of an in-group of our financial leaders. Think of all these people who were in his house, who knew him well. So now, when other people in this circle see him cheating, think about the long-term consequences: Would these other people in this financial industry now be more likely to take the immoral path? It doesn’t have to be another Ponzi scheme. It just means that, now that they have been exposed to this extreme level of dishonesty, they might adopt slightly lower moral scruples. Maybe they will start not letting their clients know exactly what they own and what they don’t own, or change a little bit the interest rate that they’re charging them … I don’t think that those in his circle will necessarily become more Madoff-like people, but I do suspect that they will get a substantial relief from their moral shackles. Sadly, that’s his legacy.
So, Chapter One of the Madoff scandal is over, but I worry that the negative downstream consequences of this experience are just starting …