Honesty Among Lawyers: Moral Character, Game Framing, and Honest Disclosures in Negotiations


Thursday, April 29, 2021, 4:00pm to 5:15pm


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Leadership, Influence and Decision Making

This speaker series provides an opportunity for scholars to share and learn about cutting edge research related to the topic of leadership, broadly defined.

"Honesty among lawyers: Moral character, game framing, and honest disclosures in negotiations"

In this presentation, I will discuss my work on the Honesty Project—a three-year $4.4 million project funded by the John Templeton Foundation to study scientific and philosophical questions about honesty—and a new research study on honesty among lawyers. Professional codes of conduct for lawyers generally prohibit outright lying in negotiations concerning factual matters even though misdirection is often expected on goals and bottom lines. There is ambiguity about the extent to which lawyers must proactively disclose honest information, for example, to correct an opposing counsel's misimpressions or mistakes. In these ambiguous cases, we suggest that lawyers’ choices about whether to disclose information will be guided by factors such as personal beliefs, moral values, and their framing of the task at hand. We surveyed 215 lawyers from across the United States to examine the degree to which honest disclosures are associated with lawyers’ moral character and their tendency to frame negotiation in less versus more game-like terms—a construal of negotiations that we label game framing.

We focus on two key features of games to make the argument that game framing of negotiations will be associated with less honesty. First, games typically (though not always) are adversarial; they have winners and losers, and the goal is to win. Second, game rules are arbitrary and artificial; rules do not carry over outside the specific game and could easily be different. We propose that when individuals view negotiations as adversarial contexts with arbitrary and artificial rules, moral norms are relaxed in favor of game norms, and such norms allow for low levels of honesty. Our results support this proposal by showing that lawyers with lower levels of moral character are more likely than those with higher levels to apply a game frame to negotiations, and application of this frame is related to less willingness to honestly disclose information when the legal requirement to do so is ambiguous.

RSVP by 12:00 PM ET on Thursday, 4/29.



TAYA R. COHEN is a tenured Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, and is currently serving as President of the International Association for Conflict Management (2020-2022). She conducts research on honesty, moral behavior, negotiation, and conflict, and is known in particular for her research on moral character in the workplace.

Professor Cohen is an author of more than 50 publications. Her work is highly cited and has received international media attention, with coverage from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and BBC News Magazine among other outlets. Her paper “Moral Character in the Workplace” published in 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology received the Outstanding Publication Award from the International Association for Conflict Management (IACM) in 2016, and her paper “Shame Proneness and Guilt Proneness: Toward the Further Understanding of Reactions to Public and Private Transgressions” published in the journal Self and Identity received the Best Paper of the Year award in 2010 from the International Society for Self and Identity. Professor Cohen has been awarded numerous research grants to fund her work, most recently as a co-investigator of a $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to fund research on honesty.

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This event is open to HKS students, faculty, and staff. The session will be recorded, and may be posted to YouTube and/or CPL's social media channels. Attendees must register for this event using the registration link above. Persons with disabilities who wish to request accommodation or who have questions about access, please contact cpl_events@hks.harvard.edu in advance of the session.