A discussion with the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative (WiN) and Professor Diana Robertson, James T. Riady Professor, Department of Legal Studies and Business Ethics. Interview and write-up by Katie Fazio (W’20 C’20).
(WiN): Could you talk a little bit about what brought you to where you are now? How did you end up in the legal studies department here?
Robertson: I have a doctorate in sociology from UCLA, and I came to Wharton to teach organizational behavior courses in the Management department, but I was asked to teach an ethics course and I really fell in love with the topic. So then I started doing all my research in ethics, as well as teaching ethics, and I’ve never looked back. But I still approach ethics from a sociological perspective, in that I’m most interested in the ways in which organizations have an impact on ethical or unethical employee behavior. That would include codes of ethics, compensation systems, monitoring systems, and other organizational variable that have an impact on workplace behavior.
(WiN): What is your favorite field specific vocabulary word?
Robertson: Moral cognition is a phrase that I tend to use over and over again. Cognitive neuroscience studies of this topic are flourishing with various conceptualizations of what moral cognition is. I am fascinated by what is meant by moral cognition and how we can study it in the brain.
I also tend to think about the normative and empirical streams of business ethics research, so I would include both “normative” and “empirical” as favorite words. I’m writing a paper now about normative and empirical work in business ethics. When I study empirical decisions involving ethics, I’m looking at some sort of normative underpinnings to any kind of decision that people make. We can’t talk about the decision to lie unless we know that there is something wrong with a lie. What about lying is wrong? The normative foundations are really important.
(WiN): You teach the undergraduate course, Legal Studies 210, why do you think it’s important that undergraduates are exposed to the course as it is?
Robertson: Because it is the most important course at the university, which I’m sure every professor says or at least thinks! I start out asking students to reflect upon their values and their purpose in life, which is not easy to do. I’m asking students to think about who they are as a person, who they want to be as a person, who they want to be in their career and how ethics and values are going to play into that identity. My course also includes very practical ways of thinking about how you would behave in an organization.
(WiN): Can you explain how brain imaging can be used to understand how we process moral/ethical issues?
Robertson: There is a great deal of controversy about what we can infer from brain images, and much of the criticism of neuroscience is that we tend to get ahead of ourselves and say “oh this part of the brain is engaged in moral reasoning therefore…” I do think there is caution there, but at the same time, we are deepening our understanding of how people make decisions when they see ethical issues. We’re learning that people process rewards when they are engaged in cooperation or altruism in much the same way that they process rewards when they get financial rewards. So we see that in the brain, and we can infer from that that people really do value different kinds of rewards.
(WiN): Why would you say that it is relevant for the business world to understand how the brain functions with respect to decision making?
Robertson: It gets back to my interest in sociology. We can think about what organizations can do that will have an impact on employees in terms of how they are going to approach ethical issues. We can learn a great deal if we know what incentive systems work or if we know that cooperation and team building work. Because we’ve seen that in the brain, then you can encourage organizations to operationalize that in their day-to-day leadership and management activities.
Diana Robertson, PhD
Photo by Katie Fazio
James T. Riady Professor, Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics
Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter