20 Jan 2023

Behind the Research: Jillian Jordan


by Shona Simkin

Photo courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva.

Jillian Jordan is an assistant professor of business administration in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit and teaches Negotiations in the second year MBA curriculum. We asked Jillian about her research, how she goes about it, and what she likes to do when she’s not working.

What is your area of research?
I’m interested in moral behavior, and what motivates people to make personal sacrifices for moral causes. A lot of my research has focused on moral outrage, condemnation, and punishment: When we see something in the world that we judge to be morally bad but does not personally affect us, why do we care? Why might we feel morally outraged and driven to take punitive actions, like boycotting a company or deleting an app? One factor that I’m really interested in is reputation as a driver of moral behavior and engagement. For example, my research suggests that if I punish someone who is morally bad, it can make me look trustworthy and morally good.

How did you get interested in these deeper issues of morality and human behavior?
I went to Harvard College for undergrad and took a few classes that explored the tension between what’s moral, cooperative, or good for the collective versus what’s beneficial to the self, and in particular took an evolutionary perspective. These classes were aimed at explaining why humans are so cooperative, more so than all other animals—we have these complex societies and organizations in which we work together in many ways that require us to put the collective over our self-interest. How can we explain why humans make these huge sacrifices for collective goals or moral purposes? And in particular, how can we explain cooperative behavior through the lens of evolution, given that natural selection selects for behaviors that maximize an individual’s personal fitness?

There are lots of frameworks for answering those questions, but one that I've always found interesting is reputation. In particular, reputation can serve as a mechanism for aligning what’s good for me with what’s good for others. If I do the thing that’s collectively beneficial instead of doing what’s best for me in the short term, I can boost my reputation and get rewarded by others trusting me more and seeing me as more deserving of good treatment, which can benefit me in all sorts of ways.

On the other hand, sometimes reputation might lead us astray. In particular, reputation might motivate us to do things that might make us look good, but are not aligned with what’s good for the collective—a suggestion that is aligned with the idea that “virtue signaling” is destroying the quality of contemporary discourse. I’m very interested in the positive and negative consequences of reputation systems, which I think have a lot of relevance both for our everyday interpersonal interactions and for organizations in the business world.

What are you researching currently?
More recently I’ve been thinking about contemporary expressions of moral outrage, and questions of whether our outrage is going too far. Are we not just holding people accountable for genuine wrongdoing, but maybe getting into the territory of cancel culture? Are we using well-thought-out processes for deciding when to condemn and punish perceived wrongdoing, or are we rushing to judgment or becoming less sensitive to nuance? There’s a lot of commentary to suggest that we’ve taken our outrage too far, and that “virtue-signaling,” which is a reputation process, is partially to blame in part for these trends. I’ve been interested in whether reputation motives are making our punishment less thoughtful and nuanced, or if that’s not actually the case.

This is certainly a hot-button topic. Do you have any initial findings?
My results paint more of a nuanced picture than some critiques of so-called “outrage culture” might suggest. My work suggests that on one hand, reputation and virtue signaling motives can cause us to punish more and less reflectively, but on the other hand, it’s actually better for your reputation to be a reflective and nuanced punisher than to be maximally punitive in all situations. If people believe that their decision-making process is observable to others and they can get credit for being thoughtful in how they are punishing, then reputation may be a tool we can leverage to make people more reflective.

What is an example of this in a business context?
Nowadays, when there’s an accusation of wrongdoing against somebody in an organization, the organization might feel a lot of pressure to respond quickly and decisively to establish their moral credibility—they can signal that they don’t tolerate bad behavior by swiftly punishing that behavior. My work suggests that it is indeed valuable for the organization’s reputation to punish bad actors. But I also find evidence that people want punishers to enact punishment in a thoughtful and careful way—you’ll look even better if you punish the transgressor after considering the facts and opposing perspectives, rather than rushing to judgment.

How do you conduct this research?
I typically conduct studies using one of two different experiment methods. One method is asking participants to participate in interactions with other participants. We’ll set up experimental games that allow us to determine, for example, what is and is not reputationally important. The other type is asking participants to read stories about people behaving in various ways and asking them to make judgements about the people in the stories.

In a recent study looking at how thoughtfully people punish when reputation is motivating their behavior, we gave people the chance to sign a punitive petition that’s trying to get someone fired. They can either just sign the petition right away or they can first read articles that express viewpoints opposing the petition. So, they can be more hasty or more thoughtful. To get at reputation, we recruited another group of participants to evaluate the participants who decided whether or not to sign the petition (with or without considering the opposing perspective articles). So we had a group of actors, and a group of evaluators. We had the evaluators take part in a game in which they could divide up money between themselves and the actor, and could base this decision on how the actor behaved. This allowed us to uncover which actor behaviors evaluators are, and are not, impressed by. And on the actor side, we investigated how the behavior of actors—such as their decisions to punish hastily versus thoughtfully—varied as a function of whether their choices were observable to evaluators. This allowed us to draw inferences about what behavioral strategies actors use to boost their reputations.

What do you like to do outside of work?
I’m very into the outdoors in general, so hiking and backpacking are some of my favorite activities. I try to do a couple of big backpacking trips in the warm months every year, and I like to get into the White Mountains a lot. Since moving to Boston, I’ve also gotten into road biking, so I like finding rail trails in the outskirts of the area. I also enjoy indoor rock climbing. There’s a gym very close to my house and I go there all the time. And I love to cook. I cook most nights, and like to try new recipes at least once or twice a week.

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