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The effect of specific and general rules on ethical decisions


  • Mulder, Laetitia B.
  • Jordan, Jennifer
  • Rink, Floor


We examined the effects of specific and general rules on ethical decisions and demonstrated, across five studies, that specifically-framed rules elicited ethical decisions more strongly than generally-framed rules. The effectiveness of specific rules was explained by reductions in people’s moral rationalizations. Alternative explanations that people feared being caught and punished or that people perceive no clear connection between general rules and the ethical decision, were ruled out. General rules exerted some effect on ethical decisions. In fact, whereas specific rules failed to affect ethical decisions that did not explicitly correspond with the rule, the effect of the general rule depended less on the type of behavior a person encountered. Our findings further suggest that combining a specific with a general rule provided no additive advantage, as people may interpret the general rule in light of the specific rule. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of these findings.

Suggested Citation

  • Mulder, Laetitia B. & Jordan, Jennifer & Rink, Floor, 2015. "The effect of specific and general rules on ethical decisions," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 126(C), pages 115-129.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jobhdp:v:126:y:2015:i:c:p:115-129
    DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2014.11.002

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Cooter, Robert, 1998. "Expressive Law and Economics," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 27(2), pages 585-608, June.
    2. Laetitia Mulder & Rob Nelissen, 2010. "When Rules Really Make a Difference: The Effect of Cooperation Rules and Self-Sacrificing Leadership on Moral Norms in Social Dilemmas," Journal of Business Ethics, Springer, vol. 95(1), pages 57-72, September.
    3. Schweitzer, Maurice E & Hsee, Christopher K, 2002. "Stretching the Truth: Elastic Justification and Motivated Communication of Uncertain Information," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 25(2), pages 185-201, September.
    4. Cooter, Robert, 1998. "Expressive Law and Economics," Berkeley Olin Program in Law & Economics, Working Paper Series qt3w34j60j, Berkeley Olin Program in Law & Economics.
    5. Sama, Linda M., 2006. "Interactive Effects of External Environmental Conditions and Internal Firm Characteristics on MNEs’ Choice of Strategy in the Development of a Code of Conduct," Business Ethics Quarterly, Cambridge University Press, vol. 16(2), pages 137-165, April.
    6. Hsee, Christopher K., 1996. "Elastic Justification: How Unjustifiable Factors Influence Judgments," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 66(1), pages 122-129, April.
    7. Feldman Yuval & Harel Alon, 2008. "Social Norms, Self-Interest and Ambiguity of Legal Norms: An Experimental Analysis of the Rule vs. Standard Dilemma," Review of Law & Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 4(1), pages 81-126, April.
    8. Gino, Francesca & Schweitzer, Maurice E. & Mead, Nicole L. & Ariely, Dan, 2011. "Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behavior," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 115(2), pages 191-203, July.
    9. Campbell, Tom, 2006. "A Human Rights Approach to Developing Voluntary Codes of Conduct for Multinational Corporations," Business Ethics Quarterly, Cambridge University Press, vol. 16(2), pages 255-269, April.
    10. Thompson, Leigh & Loewenstein, George, 1992. "Egocentric interpretations of fairness and interpersonal conflict," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 51(2), pages 176-197, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Mulder, Laetitia B. & Rink, Floor & Jordan, Jennifer, 2020. "Constraining temptation: How specific and general rules mitigate the effect of personal gain on unethical behavior," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 76(C).


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