Nation & World

Seven deadly sins on collision course with market forces

3 min read

Speaker says temptation to exploit human foibles is great

Using the seven deadly sins to examine corporate social responsibility, Kennedy School Professor Herman “Dutch” Leonard explained that today’s market-based economy exploits behavior that is deeply embedded in man’s evolutionary history.

Through millions of years of evolution, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride were “evils” necessary for man’s ability to reproduce and find sustenance, Leonard explained at the Kennedy School’s Bell Hall Thursday afternoon (Dec. 14). “The seven deadly sins may be built into us from an evolutionary perspective.”

Research has also revealed, said Leonard, anomalies in the ways in which people use information and respond to situations. Decision-making is often based on people’s direct experience – and that of others close to them – rather than on reason. Short-term pleasure often overrides potential long-term drawbacks.

“I would suggest that some of this,” Leonard said, “is built into the way in which we came over time to actually make decisions. The ability to reason is a relatively new arrival to which humans have not yet adapted.

“The free market, on the other hand, adapts at an accelerated pace, actively exploiting these shortcomings,” he said, pointing to its aggressive marketing over the years of tobacco and gambling. “In different ways, the free market system and corporate devices are working with man’s inclinations, which are fairly deeply ingrained.” The result “is a collision between biological evolution and market forces.”

A good example of this dilemma, said Leonard, is modern man’s struggle to control food consumption, as individuals adjust from a past as hunter-gatherers to a society capable of producing large quantities of calorie-rich foods. Super-sized portions and fat- and sugar-laden products are all designed to entice consumers.

“People have more or less suddenly gone from a period where we were correctly, adaptively oriented to trying to find as many calories as we possibly could, to an era where we have more calories than we can possibly use,” explained Leonard. “We have not yet adapted to it.”

How should we proceed under such rapidly changing conditions? “What special responsibilities flow from that?” Leonard asked. “Some corporations are more passively engaged in how they market, simply offering products and noticing what consumers buy,” he noted, “while others are more deeply engaged, conducting research designed to help them build products people will buy more of – often building in triggers related to the seven deadly sins.”

The more directly involved corporations are in the design or invention of the product – such as in the invention of “new” foods designed to entice people to consume more – the greater is the responsibility of these firms to ensure that the behavior they are inducing is, in fact, healthy, Leonard added.

Finding solutions to the current situation, he concluded, is challenging. “We don’t yet have the answers,” he said. “How we deal with these issues remains an open question.” A large part of the answer, he noted, may lie with consumers themselves and with changing cultural norms that support healthier decision-making. Encouraging individual firms to act responsibly, he conceded, is often antithetical to short-term profits.

The event was one of a series of lectures of the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at the Kennedy School’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government.