During a psychology experiment, you’re instructed to repeatedly press a button that shocks someone in another room, despite their increasing protests. Would you continue pressing the button as they cried out? Surprisingly, 64 percent of us would.

That number comes from psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous 1960s experiment studying tensions between conscience and deference to authority.

Fifty years later, UVA Darden School of Business Professor Bidhan Parmar re-examined Milgram’s audiotapes. What he found exemplifies how both Darden and UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce approach ethics education.

Parmar noticed those who disobeyed and refused to shock the person (thankfully, an actor) and those who obeyed had notably different speech patterns. The 64 percent who obeyed focused intently on procedural details, like exactly when to press the button. They often spoke over the actor’s cries, actively blocking cues that could spur their conscience.

Conversely, the 36 percent who disobeyed dwelt on the consequences of their actions and realized they had control over those consequences.

“They saw themselves as equal decision-makers, rather than as someone forced to obey an authority,” Parmar said. “They asked, ‘Will he be OK?’ or, ‘What happens if I do this?’”

Those teaching business ethics at the University want to ensure that UVA students are the ones asking these types of questions.

Three Keys to Asking the Right Questions:

  • Seek Out Dissenting Views: Avoid the echo-chamber effect by talking with people with different perspectives.
  • Question Routine Actions: Why does something need to be done (or not done)? What purpose does it serve?
  • Consider Multiple Angles: How will something affect others? Who might gain? Who might suffer?

Practice Makes Perfect

Darden and McIntire use the case method, requiring students to analyze real-life scenarios and decide how to proceed. Faculty members believe this teaches ethics more effectively than simply studying policy or online training.

Students in the highly ranked Commerce School take classes like “Managerial Decision-Making” and “Critical Thinking and Ethics.” Darden — consistently ranked among the top MBA programs for business ethics — incorporates ethics teaching in many classes and had adopted Professor of Practice Mary Gentile’s “Giving Voice to Values” curriculum. Gentile said her teaching plans and case studies, used in leadership programs and police and military training programs worldwide, hone “moral muscle memory.”

Profits and Purpose

Parmar said today’s students, growing up amid the 2008 financial crisis, “are refusing to make the choice between profits and purpose.”

Initiatives like Darden’s Institute for Business in Society explore the social impact of business decisions. The institute’s Olsson Center for Applied Ethics, celebrating its 50th anniversary, hosts conferences, develops case studies and partners with corporate and government leaders.

“The Olsson Center was founded with the idea that Darden would become a thought leader in business ethics. For us, that is not just an ivory tower ideal,” the center’s director, Professor Andrew Wicks, said. “It’s standing with both feet on the ground, taking on important, interesting questions that matter to how we live in the world and manage organizations.”

Preparing for the Problems of Tomorrow

Ultimately, UVA’s business programs strive to prepare students for issues we currently face and issues we don’t yet know. Already, ethical dilemmas involving self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, genetic testing and more loom on the horizon.

Today’s students will encounter unpredictable ethical questions. In revisiting Milgram’s experiment, Parmar emphasizes that they don’t need to have all of the answers or even some of them. They just need the courage to ask the questions.

Bidhan L. Parmar is author of “Disobedience of Immoral Orders From Authorities: An Issue Construction Perspective,” forthcoming in Organization Studies.

This article originally appeared in UVA Today’s Illimitable print publication.

About the Expert

Bidhan L. Parmar

Shannon Smith Emerging Scholar in Business; Associate Professor of Business Administration

Parmar is an authority on how to make good decisions — one of the toughest challenges in leading a business. He focuses on how managers make decisions and collaborate in uncertain and changing environments to create value for stakeholders. Parmar’s work helps executives better handle ambiguity in their decision-making. His recent research examines the impact of authority on moral decision-making in organizations.

In 2012 Parmar wrote the article “Moving Design from Metaphor to Management Practice” in the Journal of Organizational Design.

B.A., MBA, Ph.D., University of Virginia