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Joanna Weiss

Inner play

Child-related cues can lead to ethical behavior

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / June 7, 2011

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I’VE HEARD plenty of good arguments for why companies need on-site day care centers, usually having to do with reducing absenteeism, attracting employees, treating them well.

It wasn’t until I met Sreedhari Desai that I discovered a brilliant new reason: Day cares might make companies more ethical.

Not just day cares, actually, but stuffed animals and nursery rhymes — symbols of childhood, large and small, that provoke a subconscious response. Desai, who just left Harvard’s Safra Center for Business Ethics to teach at the University of North Carolina, studies the way environmental cues affect how people act.

She has found that a moralistic message at the bottom of your email can change how your recipient behaves. She has determined that a huge pay gap between a CEO and workers can make the boss more mean.

And her latest work, in conjunction with Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, posits a “return to innocence effect,’’ in which childhood cues can make people more honest, and businesses more charitable.

Their paper, subtitled “Nursery Rhymes, Soft Toys, and Everyday Morality,’’ was presented last winter at the Safra Center, and stemmed from Gino’s stuffed animal collection and Desai’s extracurricular pursuit. She’s an artist who paints bright, beautiful landscapes and cityscapes, and she realized one day that when she painted, she felt like a better person. In a preliminary experiment, she asked subjects to draw. Most of them filled their papers with stick figures — right out of childhood.

Kids draw with pleasure until they’re about 9, Desai said. She wondered: Could recreating that act return adults to a childlike state? Could it trigger their inner innocence? Help them find moral clarity?

So Desai and Gino devised a string of experiments to test how people behaved around childhood cues. They recruited Boston-area college students — standard guinea pigs for studies like these — to play little games that hinge on ethical behavior.

In one experiment, subjects who watched a video of the nursery rhyme “Little Bo Peep’’ cheated less on a problem-solving test than people who watched a video of real sheep on a farm. In another, people who were allowed to free-draw, as opposed to copy a diagram, behaved more honestly when reporting how much time they’d spent on a test.

In another, people who held a stuffed animal, instead of a stylish paper clip, acted more honestly in a game. And in a word-completion test — in which, for instance, the word “p_r_’’ could be filled out as “pore’’ or “pure’’ — the stuffed-animal-holders overwhelmingly chose words that connected to morality or innocence.

That’s all interesting enough, as experiments go. But Desai and Gino also wanted to see if real-world behavior matched the findings from their lab. So they analyzed data about corporate charitable giving in 212 firms, and determined whether there were day-care centers, kindergartens, or toy stores near the company’s headquarters. Controlling for the firms’ age, size, and performance, and for population density, they found that companies in the vicinity of kids were more charitable, by a statistically significant margin.

To a lay person like me, unschooled in the glories of the standard deviation, this all sounds a bit like statistical jujitsu. But Desai says the tests are tried and true. And they make some logical sense. If the checkout clerk at Target undercharges you, are you more likely to correct him if you’re shopping with your kid?

And if so, why not try using this kid stuff as a conscience? Gino would love to test these theories on real-world ethics: whether signing a restaurant bill with a cute kids’ pen would encourage people to tip more; whether stuffed animals in a hotel room would prompt guests to reuse their towels.

And Desai notes that entire companies can encourage childlike thinking: Google, whose corporate motto until recently was “Don’t be evil,’’ fills its offices with playful furnishings.

You can imagine a policy like this, writ large. Mac and cheese every day in the company cafeteria? Pictures of Scooby Doo on the walls? Wiggles tunes, piped through the elevator speakers? (Not Barney. That would just make people mean.)

But I prefer the idea of actual kids, running around and singing songs, somewhere in the vicinity of the executive suite. Good for parents, good for ethics, good for society. Let’s get the experiment started.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.