William English — The Architecture of Public Trust in Politics, Finance, and Medicine

The September 26, 2012, Lab seminar was led by Edmond J. Safra Lab Fellow Dr. William English. Drawing on his background in political theory, Dr. English began his presentation by examining how politics and economics are interrelated. In light of this analysis he identified ways that institutional complexity and political centralization create opportunities for corruption. Given the stakes involved and the degrees of complexity that increasingly characterize important institutions, Dr. English suggested that problems of institutional corruption are likely to get worse, particularly with regard to rent-seeking (the use of political power for private economic gain). However, he also pointed to ways that technological and organizational innovation have enabled societies to bypass corrupt institutions in the past and expressed some hope that similar sorts of innovation might alleviate current problems. Drawing on an assigned reading by the economist Paul Romer, Dr. English also highlighted the important role that clear principles have to play in creating conditions for adaptable accountability.

In the second part of the seminar, Dr. English presented findings from a study of mentoring relationships in law firms (a study done in collaboration with a lecturer in sociology). For the past three years Dr. English's research has centered on the ethical foundations of social institutions. Specifically, he has examined how organizations spread ethical cultures and to what extent professionalization accounts for development of ethical standards in institutions. Aside from ethics taught in the classroom, professional societies responsible for fostering and spreading ethical standards, and exams such as the Bar and CPA which test ethical competencies, Dr. English considers mentorship a significant source of ethical and professional formation. His empirical investigation of mentoring in corporate law firms examines how well these institutions are able to articulate, implement, and foster ethical standards that encourage ethical constraint.

Dr. English discussed the process by which he and his co-author collected and analyzed data from roughly 1,000 respondents employed at various domestic and international law firms. With the aim of measuring the efficacy of mentorship programs, Dr. English's initial set of regressions has revealed that having an early career mentor largely has a positive effect on trust in management, respect for the profession, and career satisfaction. Perhaps most significant, however, is the disparity in data between informal and formal mentors. While Dr. English's data shows informal mentors as having a powerful positive effect on their mentees, assigned mentors tend to have little to no impact on their mentees. Participants of the seminar were eager to ask Dr. English if one's success in law school might impact how he or she came to find a mentor, and how they might perceive mentoring. Dr. English explained that his research is ongoing, but the data set does include answers to questions regarding how and when one received a mentor, what type of mentor they have, and whether they considered mentoring to have a positive or negative effect on their career as an attorney. At this point in the presentation, one participant questioned if the mere presence of mentor programs in private law firms is revealing of a general distrust of the profession as a whole. Other professions lack formal mentor programs, so why do private law firms have such programs? Another participant disagreed, and suggested that the benefit of passing along experiential knowledge in the legal profession is not only essential, but also positive and not corrupting. Dr. English agreed with the latter observation and added that it is not generally perceived as a negative practice.

In the final part of the seminar, Dr. English presented results from his study of cheating. He began by outlining current claims being advanced by behavioral economists with regard to cheating and suggested that these results may be driven by poorly designed experiments. In particular, he questioned a prominent finding claimed by Daniel Ariely and others, namely that increasing incentives to cheat do not lead to increased cheating. One of the methodological shortcomings that Dr. English identified with existing research, is that there is often no harm "at stake" in cheating experiments. Dr. English then explained the novel protocol that he had developed to study cheating, which involved a medical questionnaire in which the honesty of responses could plausibly have an effect on the health of others. His first finding was that, contrary to Ariely, increasing incentives to cheat indeed increased the rate of cheating, as measured by both the number of correct answers and the time spent responding (compared to control groups). Dr. English went on to explain a series of interventions that were then tested to see if they decreased cheating. Of particular note, simply making a direct ethical appeal to respondents decreased cheating as much as requiring them to pledge not to cheat (the latter being a widely proposed way of mitigating cheating). Dr. English also identified forms of surveillance that eliminated cheating altogether, without the need for explicit threats or penalties. Thus, in addition to challenging an emerging body of literature in behavioral economics, his study identified new and effective strategies for reducing cheating even in the face of large financial temptations. Seminar participants discussed different interpretations of Dr. English's results, and made some suggestions for further treatments and investigations.