ArticlePDF Available

Abstract and Figures

Taboos are a universal feature of social systems. Even the most avowedly open-minded organizations place tacit constraints on what can be said and even thought. Business leaders ignore these constraints at their peril. This article examines the role of the sacred, profane, and taboo in society, and links these phenomena to the psychology of moral outrage. In public debates, taboos are rarely as absolute as first assumed and can often be reframed as tragic choices. Leaders must perform a delicate balancing act if they are to prevent taboos from blinding managers to either threats or opportunities. On the one hand, leaders who let their intellectual curiosity get the better of them risk paying a steep career price. On the other, leaders who bury their heads in the sand risk even worse consequences. Navigating this dilemma brings into sharp tension the policy prescriptions of advocates of authentic leadership (who see honesty as a trump virtue) and proponents of Realpolitik (who see organizational hypocrisy and obfuscation as unfortunate but unavoidable tactics necessary in an imperfect world.)
Content may be subject to copyright.
Taboo Scenarios:
Paul J.H. Schoemaker
Philip E. Tetlock
Taboos are a universal feature of social systems. Even the most avowedly open-minded organizations place
tacit constraints on what can be said and even thought. Business leaders ignore these constraints at their peril.
This article examines the role of the sacred, profane, and taboo in society, and links these phenomena to the
psychology of moral outrage. In public debates, taboos are rarely as absolute as first assumed and can often
be reframed as tragic choices. Leaders must perform a delicate balancing act if they are to prevent taboos
from blinding managers to either threats or opportunities. On the one hand, leaders who let their intellectual
curiosity get the better of them risk paying a steep career price. On the other, leaders who bury their heads in
the sand risk even worse consequences. Navigating this dilemma brings into sharp tension the policy prescrip-
tions of advocates of authentic leadership (who see honesty as a trump virtue) and proponents of Realpolitik
(who see organizational hypocrisy and obfuscation as unfortunate but unavoidable tactics necessary in an imper-
fect world.) (Keywords: Corporate culture, Decision making, Ethics, Organizational behavior, Risk management,
Companies, industries, nation-states, and international institutions
neither size nor status confers protectionare routinely rocked by dire
scenarios that catch their leaders off guard. Recent examples include
British Petroleums failure to foresee the risk of deep water drilling;
drug companies underestimating the consequences of promoting flawed products
such as Vioxx and Avandia; the Catholic Churchs refusal to address the systematic
abuses of pedophilic priests; dictators in the Middle East miscalculating the depth of
opposition to their repressive regimes; the nuclear power industrys presumption
in Japan that their reactors could withstand earthquakes and floods; Greece
fudging its case for European Union admission and embarking on reckless spending
(while grossly underpaying taxes). Each of these cases is complex, entailing multiple
causes: powerful players, value conflicts, extreme events, media hype, and social
The authors would like to thank Jim Austin, Tom Donaldson, Barbara Mellers, J. Edward Russo, and
Mike Useem for their valuable feedback.
networking. However, a common thread binds them together. The disastrous out-
comes all caught their leaders by surprise and woefully unprepared. To add insult
to injury, the media love scandals involving moral, not just cognitive, failings (see
sidebar, Violated Taboos Make Good News).
SIDEBAR: Violated Taboos Make Good News
Violated taboos attract attention. As recent headlines demonstrate, news
stories that engender public outrage usually imply some violation of a value
presumed to be widely held.
By tracing any disaster to its root causes after
the fact, one can virtually always find warning signs
that foreshadowed doom. Hindsight bias can, of
course, cause us to blame unfairly, but there are
such things as predictable surprises in which leaders
ignored signals they should have heeded.
those signals challenged their existing mental mod-
els, or, more treacherously, deeply held emotional
viewpoints. In such situations, the root problem is
not a lack of evidence, but the unwillingness of lead-
ers to confront repugnantideas. These are notions
that challenge deep values, fly in the face of conventional wisdom, or cross a line into
the region of the unspeakableor unthinkable.We call these situations taboo sce-
nariosbecause ideas seen as tabooby the ruling majority fail to get the attention
they merit. As such, taboo scenarios pose some of the most pernicious risks to organi-
zations and leaders in our age of rising uncertainty and complexity. Problems can fes-
ter until they trigger a tipping-point disaster, as with Greeces debt and the financial
crisis more generally. To help leaders avoid such outcomes, we investigate how and
Story Values Violation
Drilling in protected arease.g., Arctic Wildlife
Refuge, Gulf of Mexico
Our environment should be
Western companies using child labor in third-
world countries
The innocence of childhood should
be preserved
Amazons willingness to list a book with content
considered pedophilic (now removed)
Children need protection from
sexual predators
Ethnic profiling by Homeland Security and other
law enforcement agencies
All humans deserve equal treatment,
regardless of the color of their skin
Chinas alleged use of executed prisoners organs
for transplant surgery
The human body is sacrosanct
TSAs use of body scanners that allow officials
fullimages of people
Personal privacy cannot be violated
UK tabloids hacking into private phone messages Invading privacy of tragic victims
Paul J.H. Schoemaker is Executive
Chairman, Decision Strategies
International and Research Director, Mack
Center for Technological Innovation at the
Wharton School, University of
Pennsylvania. <schoemak@wharton.>
Philip E. Tetlock is the Annenberg
University Professor, University of
Pennsylvania, Psychology Department and
the Wharton School. <tetlock@wharton.>
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
why taboo scenariosemerge, as well as the challenges they present to leaders. We
also offer advice on when and how to address the unthinkable and unspeakable in
constructive ways, and explore solutions that may at first seem taboo (such as Greece
offering to sell some of its many islands to reduce its sovereign debt).
Taboos Within the Organization
Akin to taboos in public life, organizational taboos also involve deeply
embedded beliefs and values that restrict what is considered appropriate thought,
discussion, and action. Most organizations claim to prize creativity and open-minded
inquiryand putatively encourage managers to explore a wide range of options.
Nonetheless, most organizational cultures also harbor unspoken taboos that limit
what managers can think, say, or do. Such taboos can vary from company to com-
pany, and even within different areas of an organization itself.
Consider the case of PDVSA, the national petroleum company of Venezuela.
One of us conducted a strategy workshop with some of PDVSAs leaders in Caracas,
a few years before Hugo Chavez came to power. The session involved building
scenarios for the future of their energy sector so that PDVSA could develop robust
as well as flexible business strategies. Participants brainstormed the numerous
factors that could impact future scenarios, including energy prices, new technolo-
gies, competitive changes, new supply conditions, regulations, and global warming.
However, no one raised a single idea that presaged the scenario that eventually
came to pass: the election of populist leader Chavez as president, his subsequent
declaration of martial law, and the very public firing of the top 50 managers of the
What made this scenario unspeakable or even unthinkable to some? One rea-
son was the nightmarish quality of the outcome for PDVSA. Fear can blind us: it is
often impossible for an organization to acknowledge the biggest risks it faces, includ-
ing extinction or criminal indictments against multiple leaders. Also, personal agen-
das and strategic issues were at stake at PDVSA since the CEO was considered a
viable contender to become the countrys next President. The collective unwilling-
ness to name the elephant in the room meant that a viable scenario was ignored at
great peril. When the unexpected future did arrive, no plans had been made for what
was in fact a predictable scenario.
Politics and international conflict often determine which topics are considered
unmentionable. In another engagement, we were running a strategy workshop with
a global software company aimed at building a better marketing plan for Mainland
China. Although the session was held in Hong Kong, the client gave explicit instruc-
tions to discuss neither the Taiwanese conflict nor Hong Kongs special political
status. Similarly, during a scenario planning session in Saudi Arabia about the King-
doms future, the topic of womens rights and the role of the monarchy were
declared off limits. Although norms about what issues can be addressed and which
are deemed taboo can serve valid purposes in maintaining harmony and a sense of
community, they can also exact a high toll by blinding leaders to impending disasters
or emerging opportunities. Indeed, entire societies can be blind to genocide and other
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
great evil.
To prevent this, leaders must understand more fully the deeper meaning
of taboos.
The Nature of Taboos
The first appearance of the English word taboocan be precisely dated. In
1777, Captain Cooks book Voyage to the Pacific Ocean recounts how Polynesians use
the Tongan word tabuto describe anything consecrated, inviolable, forbidden,
unclean or cursed.Thetermcouldrefertofruitsormeatsthatshouldnotbeeaten,
improper sexual relationships, or theft and murder within the tribe. As an outsider try-
ing to understand a new culture, the notion of taboohelped Cook understand what
Polynesians valued deeply. The term was later adopted by anthropologistsfrom
Durkheim to Lévi-Straussto define the boundaries of the sacred versus profane in
particular cultures, although the concepts use has waned in modern anthropology.
King Darius, ruler of Persia, was intrigued by conflicting cultural taboos within his
empire, as recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus twenty-five centuries ago:
Darius, when he was King, summoned those Greeks who were with him and
asked what sum of money would induce them to make a meal of their dead fathers;
and they said nothing would induce them to do this. Darius then summoned the
Callatian Indians, who do eat their deceased parents, and asked them how much
money they would take to burn their dead fathers in a fire (as the Greeks did); and
they raised a great uproar, telling him not to speak of such a thing.
The popular usage of the term taboois virtually unchanged from Cooksfirst
reference and exists in many languages, underscoring how useful the construct is for
understanding strikingly different social worlds. Anthropologists argued that the
sacred and taboo serve crucial backstop functions in defining group norms and role
identities, laying the groundwork for a shared and meaningful social order. Indeed,
taboos often play a crucial role in defining peoples sense of self as well as in providing
group identity.
By rendering vast swathes of behavior unthinkable for most of the
population, taboos keep people off the slippery slope of ethical relativism, where they
must weigh each time the costs and benefits of many forbidding behaviors. One sign
that an activity falls in the taboo domain of the unthinkable is that people are inca-
pable of providing reasons why an action is wrongrevealing a state of moral dumb-
Another sign is the bafflement people express toward those who seem to
think that reasons are necessary in the first place and the moral outrage that people
aim at those who dare to challenge the taboo.
Society often views those who do not
respect taboos as crazy or evilor, in clinical language as sociopathic or psychopathic
(see sidebar Public Reactions to Taboo Violations).
SIDEBAR: Public Reactions to Taboo Violations
When a widely held taboo has been transgressed, public reactions tend to
include some or all of the following elements:
continued on next page
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
Moral Outrage: punitive character attributions, as well as contempt, anger,
and disgust;
Sanctions: any and all forms of punishment/public humiliation, such as fines,
demotion, loss of job, loss of freedom, flogging, and execution; and
Calls for Moral Cleansing: public hunger to see violators and their associates
recommit to sacred values through symbolic sacrificial actssuch as volun-
teerism, establishing foundations, tithes, denouncing other violators, public
flogging, or street clean-up by convicts.
The Sacred, the Profane and the Taboo
We all hold beliefs and values, many of which we assume to be universal
and refuse to questionuntil confronted with a circumstance that violates them.
This transgression in turn helps us see what is taboo.
Many contemporary
artists deliberately push us to confront and acknowledge those shared beliefs
through strong, provocative imagery, like Andres SerranosPiss Christ photograph
or Marcus HarveysMyra, a controversial portrait of the child murderer Myra Har-
vey constructed from childrens hand prints. Although we generally recognize
that innovation and creativity may require challenging prevailing norms, taboo
images nevertheless inspire controversy and indignation. We might not, as some
Iranian mullahs do, issue fatwas ordering the artists assassination, but we show
our outrage in other waysboycotts against museums, threats to withdraw fund-
ing, and indignant letters to editors.
Many feel that certain values are so sacred that they cannot be violated. These
values usually include concepts such as the sanctity of human life and the human
body, the need to protect children and their innocence, or the need to preserve the
environment for future generations. Proposals that link these concepts to trade-offs,
or undermine their moral centrality, tend to evoke virulent protest. Examples include
sanctioning an economic market for human organs, selling unwanted children to the
highest bidder, or, for some, even creating an incentive-based market for pollution
credits. These controversial ideas imply taboo trade-offsthat put a finite value on
things that, according to our reflexive moral intuitions, we deem of infinite impor-
tance. When confronted with these ideas, most of us prefer to change the subject.
In relatively open societies, quite a few thinkers are willing to touch these
controversial topics, some with evident relish. Philosophers, political scientists, psy-
chologists, and economists study which scenarios do and do not evoke moral out-
rage. This work suggests that the hottest-button issues, such as the sanctity of life
and the need to protect children, tend to be widely shared across otherwise diverse
moral communities and political mindsets. This research also suggests, however,
that deep cultural and ideological disagreements can arise over what qualifies as a
sacred value. Inevitably, circumstances arise when even the most sacred values come
into conflict, requiring a choice. In these circumstances, the trump value,that
which the culture considers of paramount importance, will emerge. For Wahhabi
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, this trump valueis Allah; for Scandinavian fem-
inists, it is gender equality; in Silicon Valley, individual autonomy reigns supreme.
Environmentalists deem our ecosystems as sacrosanct. The sidebar Sacred Values
and Taboos in America Today lists additional examples for U.S. society.
SIDEBAR: Sacred Values and Taboos in
America Today
Human Life: This issue arises whenever industries must address how safe is
safe enough, from autos and airlines to construction equipment and med-
icine. The sanctity of human life cuts across diverse cultures and deactivat-
ing this value requires dehumanizing certain classes of individuals (terrorists,
enemies of the state, murderers, heretics, etc).
God and Country: Flag desecrators are usually condemned in the United
States. Invasive airport scanners and wiretaps are tolerated for the greater
national good.
Mother Earth: We expect error-proof oil-drilling policies and procedures.
Challenges to global warming are viewed in environmentalist circles as
signs of willful scientific ignorance or moral corruption. Crimes against
nature have gained in legal standing, fueled by industrial pollution and mas-
sive oil spills.
Workplace Sexuality: This norm is reflected in taboos about sexual innu-
endo or jokes at work, as well as the recently abandoned dont ask, dont
tellpolicies in the military and strict sexual harassment guidelines in the
Equality Norm: Anything that implies that one ethnic, racial, gender, or reli-
gious group is not as capable and motivated as another is taboo; age is also
a protected category by law, but less deeply internalized.
Hierarchy Deference: Anything that implies that those at the top are not
well qualifiedand could be easily replacedis forbidden in many compa-
nies. Although we all know better, in view of the Peter Principle, we are
often loath to say that the Emperor has no clothes.
Mutual Respect: Bureaucracies create standard rules to check corruption and
favoritism. However, challenging the integrity of specific colleagues in non-
standard situations is extremely risky. False-positive whistleblowing can ruin
the reputation of the accuser, whereas false-negative decisionssilence
can ruin the reputation of the organization.
Taboos and the Power of Framing
As categorical as most taboos sound, many permitupon closer inspection
For example, killing another human may be acceptable in self-defense,
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
in the heat of war, in prisons via execution, or in hospitals through passive euthana-
sia. Such exceptions are useful and allow taboos to shift over time. Longstanding
taboos may need to be recalibrated due to innovation, technological advance, or
just new ways of thinking. Leaders may need to question organizational taboos to
see new options or warn each other about a looming threat too dire perhaps to
contemplate. This could be out-of-control spending in the euro zone periphery; the
risks of a hugely profitable, widely used drug; the dangers of an established technol-
ogy like nuclear power in Japan; or an emerging technology such as genetic engi-
Although taboos feel deep, innate, and inflexibleresistant to rhetoric
research shows that this often is not the case. Social scientists have found surprising
pockets of malleability. In one experiment, researchers explored when people would
be willing to make taboo trade-offs, at least covertly. Participants were told about
a thinly fictionalized government program charged with cleaning up waste sites
to eliminate public health risks. The Danner Commission, a group of community,
business, and government leaders dedicated to improving efficiency in public serv-
ices, investigated the program and recommended reforms. If these reforms are
followed, the program could save 200 lives, at a cost of only $100 million. If the pro-
gram continues at the previous years budget of $200 million, 400 lives could be
saved. The Commission, however, recommends redirecting the saving of $100 mil-
lion to other uses, including reducing the deficit and lowering taxes.
The experiment assessed participantsreaction to both the naked recommen-
dation, and the rhetorical framing of the recommendation. For two groups of par-
ticipants, the Commission offered a vague smokescreen rationale that took either a
utilitarian form (After weighing relevant costs and benefits, the Commission con-
cludes that this is the right thing to do)ormoralisticform(Based on its analysis,
the Commission concludes that morally this is the right thing to do). For a third
group, the decision process was made transparent: people learned that the Commis-
sion decided that the cost of saving the additional 200 lives (at $500,000 per life) is
too high given other priorities. The Commission therefore recommends redirecting
the saving of $100 million to other uses, including reducing the deficit and lowering
taxes. For the first two groups, approval for the recommendation hovered at 72%.
In the third group, for whom the trade-off had been made explicit, approval plum-
meted to 35%. This suggests the advantages of obfuscation: vacuous moralistic
rationales are less likely to meet resistance than clearly articulated trade-offs that
specific a dollar valuation for human life.
A scandal during the Clinton presidency also illustrates the power of framing
to sway publicopinion around an apparent violation of a taboo. In 1997, Republicans
exposed Bill Clintons practice of allowing big campaign donors to sleep in the
Lincoln bedroom. The unadorned facts elicited considerable moral angst from both
Clinton supporters and detractors. The implication was that Clinton was buying
and selling access to a sacred site. Bill Clintons response is a classic example of re-
framing. He released all of the memos related to this topic to the press, listing names
of all friends who stayed in the White House and asserted the reciprocity normin
other words, the rights of friends to give and receive favors. They were my friends,
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
and I was proud to have them here, and I do not believe people who lawfully raise
money for people running for office are bad people,Clinton declared. Through this
statement, the White House reframed the issuethe Clintons were not violating a
taboo by allowing a sacred site to have a market price, but rather protecting and
affirming a different valuethat of reciprocity and friendship.
Taken together, these two examples, the Danner Commission experiment
and the Lincoln bedroom scandal, illustrate how effectively political rhetoric can
re-frame issues in order to sway public opinion. Moreover, eloquence is not required.
Efficiency experts on toxic clean-up escape blame for a taboo trade-off by earmarking
surpluses as the opportunity to save lives, rather than as general revenue. The Clin-
ton White House defuses public outrage by re-casting the President as a magnani-
mous friend, rather than a wheeler-dealer selling access to a sacred site. This
suggests that taboos are not set in stone, but are part of a dynamic process in which
the boundaries of what is considered acceptable warp and bend. Rhetorical framings
of choices can shift and even flip public perception, as in ambiguous drawings of an
old and young woman in which figure and ground easily reverse themselves. While
the two previous examples show how this fluidity can work in politiciansfavors,
there are also many instances when the reverse can be the case. Safe positions can
suddenly become dangerous ones.
Certainly, some taboos are harder to re-frame than others. Some issues prove
resistant to manipulation. Usually, this is because the debate around the taboo has
become so heated, and positions so calcified, that any proposal of compromise inevi-
tably leads to vilification of one or both sides of the issue. Abortion rights, racism, and
access to the sacred soil of regions like Jerusalem and Kashmir appear to fall into
these categories. In traditional societies, strong taboos may exist about gender and
race, and these often continue to linger in modern societies, but usually more below
the surface.
Taboo vs. Tragic Trade-offs
As noted, public outrage around a taboo often arises when it appears that the
sacred and the secular are in conflictwhen a trusted decision maker, such as a gov-
ernment official, is willing to translate sacred values into the secular ones of money
and expedience. So what changes, and how must the rhetoric shift, when the values
in conflict are both consideredsacred? Examplesof this include: weighing the value of
amothers life over that of her unborn child or governments paying ransom to terro-
rists. These instances are called tragic trade-offs.In such cases, decision makers
have no choice but to agonize over no-win options.
The public view of decision
makers facing these choices is usually far less condemnatory than it would be if deci-
sion makers were violating a sacred value for financial gain, even though, as we
show next, the difference may be just a matter of framing.
In one experiment, Tetlock et al. asked people to judge the ethics of Robert,
a hospital administrator confronted with a decision that might save the life of a 5 year
old boy named Johnny (see sidebar Liver Transplant Framing).
The study varied
three conditions: whether the decision was framed as a taboo violationor a tragic
trade-off,whether the administrator found the decision easy or hard to make, and
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
which option Robert ultimately selected for the child. Over 200 survey participants
were asked to judge the morality of Roberts decision, using a scale from 1-7, where
1 = no moral concerns and 7 = high moral outrage.
SIDEBAR: Liver Transplant Framing
The experiment varied three factors, each at two levels, as follows:
Factor 1: The basic problem was framed in two different ways. In one con-
dition (the Taboo version), participants were told the following:
Robert can either save the life of Johnny, a five-year-old boy who needs a
liver transplant, but the transplant procedure will cost the hospital
$1,000,000 that could be spent in other ways, such as purchasing better
equipment and enhancing salaries to recruit talented doctors to the hospital.
Johnny is very ill and has been on the waiting list for a transplant but because
of the shortage of local organ donors, obtaining a liver will be very expen-
sive. Robert could save Johnnys life, or he could use the $1,000,000 for
other hospital needs.
In the other condition (the Tragic Trade-off version), the participants were
told that:
Robert can either save the life of Johnny, a five-year-old boy who needs a
liver transplant, or he can save the life of an equally sick six-year-old boy
who needs a liver transplant. Both boys are desperately ill and have been
on the waiting list for a transplant but because of the shortage of local
organ donors, only one liver is available. Robert will only be able to save
one child.
Factor 2: The second factor was also binary and manipulated how difficult
Robert found the decision: half the participants were told that:
Robert sees this decision as an easy one.
and the other half were told:
Robert finds this decision very difficult, and is only able to make it after
much time, thought and contemplation.
Factor 3: The third condition switched the decisions outcome. Some
participants were told that:
No, Robert did not save Johnnys life since he opted for the other
while others were told:
Yes, Robert approved Johnnys liver transplant.
Thus, a total of eight (2
) conditions were tested in this experiment with the
main results summarized in the table below. Factor 1 is shown as columns,
Factor 2 as rows and Factor 3 embedded inside each cell of the table.
continued on next page
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
Table 2 shows the mean responses of the participants across conditionsand
all effects noted below were statistically significant (at p<.05). Moral outrage was
manifestly highest (5.71 mean score) when Robert thought hard and deep about
the decision and opted to save the hospital $1,000,000 rather than save Johnnys
life; and manifestly lowest (1.51) when Johnny was granted the liver in a quick
decision by Robert. All other cases fell between these extremes, with tragic choice
scenarios being judged less harshly, after denying Johnny a liver, than doing so in
the money saving scenario. Also, in the tragic trade-off condition observers were
more positive toward the administrator if he made the decision slowly rather than
quickly, regardless of which boy Robert chose to save. Lingering over a taboo trade-
off, even if one ultimately upholds the sacred value, makes one a target of moral
outrage. In contrast, lingering over a tragic choice serves to emphasize the gravity
of the issues at stake and the moral responsibility of weighing the options carefully
This research suggests that the rhetorical framing of trade-offsas either
taboo or tragicwill be a critical determinant of public reactions to decision mak-
ers. Note how easy in principle it is to transform the $1M taboo violation into a
tragic trade-off by budgetary legerdemain in which the $1M will go to prenatal
care that will save many lives. Decision makers who trade-off money against a
sacred value, such as environmental protection, child labor, or facilitating govern-
ment oppression, should reframe the choice as balancing competing sacred values
against each other: e.g., environmental damage against the lives that would be
lost if per capita income did not continue to inch upward. The choice is trans-
formed from lives versus money to lives versus lives.
The Psychology of Moral Outrage
There is a seemingly endless variety of ways to be offensiveand it is well-
nigh impossible for policymakers and global business leaders to avoid occasionally
Johnny’s life vs.
hospital funds
“Taboo Violation”
Johnny’s life vs.
another child’s life
“Tragic Tradeoff”
Factor 1
Taboo vs. Tragic
Factor 2
Ease vs. Difficulty
Factor 3
Moral “Score”
1=no concern
7=high outrage
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
violating taboos. As distasteful or ill-advised as some of these violations may be (see
sidebar on Lawrence Summers), research also suggests that the cognitive capacity
and social willingness to stretch the bounds of thinking is a distinctive trait of highly
creative people.
Breakthrough innovations often come from mavericks willing
to reject convention and hierarchy. At a faculty meeting about new hires at our
previous university, a senior professor wondered who in the field was most upset-
ting their colleagues. He recommended looking for job candidates who upset
the apple cart and just dont fit. Academics, like managers, need to be willing to
weather scorn when they dare to approach the edges of conventional wisdom
and complacency.
SIDEBAR: Lawrence Summers:
Serial Violator of Taboos
Like shock jocks and raunchy comedians, certain academics and public
intellectuals are known for their repeated transgressions around sacrosanct
topics. Below are some instances where the brilliant, controversial econo-
mist Larry Summers set off firestorms through public statements that chal-
lenged conventional wisdom.
Central Africa is under-polluted. Summers co-signed a memo while at the
World Bank saying that the economic logic behind dumping a load of
toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face
up to that ...Ive always thought that under-populated countries in Africa
are vastly under-polluted.
Professor Cornell West should spend less time on rap music. As new president
of Harvard University, Larry Summers told this renowned chaired profes-
sor of African Studies to refocus on scholarship rather than pop art. As a
protest against this mandate, West resigned from Harvard and re-joined
the ranks of Princeton University.
Mistakes were made, but not by me. Speaking on television (PBS) in April of
2010, Summers was questioned at point blank whether his work as eco-
nomic advisor and Secretary of the Treasury for the Clinton administration
helped to lay the seeds for the financial crisis. He denied any personal
responsibility, catalyzing a storm of public criticism.
Females have less innate ability to be math geniuses. While President of Har-
vard, Summers spoke at an academic conference on the underrepresenta-
tion of women in the top ranks of mathematics. Summers hypothesized
that innate differences between male and female proclivities for mathe-
matics, rather than discrimination, might be at the heart of the divide,
inspiring a firestorm of controversy that contributed to his resignation.
In matters of moral outrage, much depends on how covertly or overtly the
taboo violation is. For example, when voting down a budget to make a dangerous
road safer, policy makers implicitly place a value on a human life. This is generally
considered an acceptable practice. However, several decades ago, when Ford Motor
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
Company ago made an explicit trade-off between manufacturing costs and the
value of a human life, the impact on the company was nearly catastrophic. In
deciding whether or not to reinforce the gas tank of its Pinto model, Ford conducted
a cost-benefit analysis. The company weighed the small cost of reinforcing the gas
tank against the very low probability of explosion injury from rear-end collisions.
In a subsequent class action lawsuit about such explosions, Ford was deemed overly
explicit, even callous, in putting a cold dollar value on a warm human life. The jury
convicted Ford and recommended significant compensatory as well as punitive
damage awards.
For this jury, the explicit act of considering risk of human
life relative to cost represented an unforgiveable taboo trade-off. Nonetheless, this
same trade-off is made implicitly by nearly all manufacturing organizations, and
any company involved in safety, at some time or other.
Social psychologists have researched why some jury decisions lead to out-
sized damages, from racial profiling in law enforcement to risky offshore drilling
for oil. According to the research, few jurors want to be caught translating their
moral outrage toward corporate transgressors into a smaller dollar value than their
peers. The fear is that other jurors will ask: What kind of person are you? Do you
really think that familys life is only worth X amount of dollars?The legal conse-
quence: the addition of lots of zeroes to the end of damage awards.
Social norms
create a shift toward the extreme, which is a broader tendency in group decision
making (extending well beyond jurors) that originally was called risky shiftand
now is termed polarization. The deeper the taboo, the stronger such a shift will be.
This evidence suggests that executives must approach any situation that might
imply the violation of a taboo with extreme caution. We all know that economic and
business rationality, combined with the fiduciary norms of due diligence, demand a
constant calibration between the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action.
However, as the Ford Pinto case shows, outside observers of an organizationscon-
ductthe public, the press, customers, and competitorsare likely to judge a com-
pany harshly for any evidence that they have mingled the sacred and the profane
by contemplating a taboo trade-off. To paraphrase moral philosopher Joseph Raz,
to compare is sometimes to destroy.
Executives who are caught putting an explicit
dollar value on human life or environmental destruction are likely shunned as
immoral. This label also applies to parents who exploit the monetary value of their
gifted children, romantic lovers who propose prenuptial agreements prior to mar-
riage, and scientists who violate norms of data sharing to reap personal monetary
gains. Their moral status is undercut. Indeed, the mere act of contemplating such
trade-offs can put the person on the wrong side of the moral divide. The decision
maker is revealed to be the type of person willing to treat sacred values as fungible.
Defusing Outrage: Three Simple Rules
Most business and government leaders inevitably find themselves facing deci-
sions that attach at least implicit monetary values to ostensibly sacred values. If the
righteous wrath of the masses is to be avoided, they should explore the following:
§Know What is Really Sacred. Some values, like human life, are sacred to many;
others may be merely pseudo-sacred, such as privacy (think of airline security
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
checks or random drug tests for pilots). Sound arguments or inducements
can entice people to abandon the illusion that certain values are infinitely
§Reframe Issues as Tragic Choices. If leaders have the rhetorical skills and cha-
risma to reframe taboo trade-offs as the more politically palatable tragic
trade-off,they are often able to defuse moral outrage. However, there
remains the risk of being accused of deception or lying, so this can backfire.
§Make Defensible Choices. If taboo trade-offs are not flagrantly paraded, people
are usually willing to look the other way. They key is not to be in your
faceabout it so as to respect differences of opinion and other peoples
moral values. If possible, try to emphasize with opposing views while
emphasizing the harsh reality that trade-offs are often unavoidable.
There is mounting evidence for all three approaches.
Although most people
are appalled by the idea of buying and selling body organs for medical transplants,
40% qualified their opposition when convinced that: such transactions are the only
way to save lives that otherwise would have been lost; steps have been taken to assist
the poor in purchasing organs and to prevent the vulnerable from selling their organs
in deals of desperation.
The first argument recasts the issue as one sacred value
against another: lives versus moral objections to commodifyingorgans; the second
argument secularized the sacred side of the trade-off by using transfer payments to
neutralize egalitarian objections. Baron and Lesher as well as Thompson and Gonza-
lez present other evidence of flexibility in commitments to allegedly sacred values.
In sum, the context and conditions around the presentation and discussion of a taboo
can have great influence on public opinion.
The above rules suggest how public leaders can better manage situations
when they are aware that their decisions, or their organizational mandates, require
them to walk the line between the sacred and profane. However, what about more
private situations where leaders arent always able to pinpoint or identify the sacred
ground deep inside the organization? What do we do in cases when ignorance is not
bliss? Fear, hidden agendas, cultural prejudices, and misaligned incentives can pre-
vent the truth from being freely and openly acknowledged in any organization.
When the truth is being repressed, all kinds of dangerous issues can fester and multi-
ply. Notable examples include the groupthink trap that contributed to the space shut-
tle Challenger exploding, the national security failures surrounding the 9/11 attacks,
and the collective brainwashing (bordering on cult behavior) in the sub-prime mort-
gage sector. In these cases, organizations need better guidance on when and how to
ring the alarm-bell about topics deemed taboo.
It is usually not the routine risks that we need to worry about. For the most
part, the mundane checks and balances instituted by most companies (such as peri-
odic fire drills, six sigma programs to improve product quality, or stress tests for bal-
ance sheets) provide an adequate safety net. The more difficult cases to catch are
those in which alternative interpretations of the issue collide with the mental models
of leaders. This is because the provocative hypothesis from the lower ranks may be
viewed as impugning deeply held values at the top, such as those about integrity,
competence, or reputation. In such cases, cognitive and emotional dissonance is
evoked and various defensive routines set in. These range from ignoring the heretical
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
claim to ridiculing its logic, ostracizing the whistle-blower, terminating the employee,
and perhaps suing the offender. It gets more complicated when the taboo violator
does not come from within the organization, but is a client, regulator, or government.
In December 2009, Google was subjected to various cyber-attacks that were
traced to computers in China. Googles intellectual property was stolen and it dis-
covered that the attackers were trying to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese
human-rights activists. Sergei Brin, one of Googles founders, personally supervised
Googles investigation, moving his office into the building where Googles security
team was operating. Googles CEO Eric Schmidt argued the company could do more
good by keeping its search engine in China, but Brin said that Google had already
taken that approach. Brins Soviet upbringing made him particularly opposed to
high-tech spying on citizens, especially Gmail accounts. That tripped Sergei,one
person said. It violated a deeply held taboo (see sidebar Googles Taboo Encounter
in China).
SIDEBAR: Googles Taboo Encounter in China
Sergei Brin, co-founder of Google, was raised in the former Soviet Union,
where he had first-hand experience with censorship and its corrosive
effects. Brin was also the driving force behind the companys decision to
pull out of China due to their excessive censorship. Did Brins boyhood
upbringing in the former Soviet Union lead him to see political compro-
mises with the Chinese government as unacceptable? Should Google be
applauded for defending sacred values (liberty, anti-censorship, and its
founding value to not be evil), or should it be criticized for breaching
an alternative sacred value: namely, its fiduciary duty to shareholders to
make money?
Brin has long been Googles moral compass on China. He had grave con-
cerns about the compromises Google would make in order to launch in
the Chinese market. He mused on these trade-offs in a 2004 interview.
There are difficult questions, difficult challenges,he said. One thing we
know is that people can make better decisions with better information.
He named cases where information located through Googles search
engine had saved peoples lives. Subsequently, Google launched its
Chinese-language search engine,, in 2006.
In order to play in this market, Google agreed to filter some results that the
Chinese government objected to, including some political speech and por-
nography. Brin wasnt comfortable that Google agreed to Beijings
demands, but his misgivings were not strong enough to reverse Googles
policy. I actually feel like things really improvedin the first years after
Google entered China, Brin remarked at a technology conference. We
were actually able to censor less and less, and our local competitors there
also censored less and less.However, following the 2008 Olympic Games
in Beijing, he said, theres been a lot more blocking going on.
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
To circumvent various obstacles in addressing taboos, we recommend that
leaders foster organizational cultures that reward intellectual curiosity. When lead-
ers welcome alternative points of view, conducted in a constructive spirit, they are
less likely to be blindsided by scenarios that were rendered invisible by taboos
against speaking the truth. This can be done through example by leaders or by
rewarding all those who speak frankly against the prevailing norm. Employees
readily remember what happened to whistle-blowers in various industries: many
end up jobless, outcast from their professional circle, depressed and destitute. It
may take explicit rewards and protection to overcome this legacy.
When setting strategy, solicit and catalyze multiple interpretations about cur-
rent and future conditions besetting the industry. Scan for weak signals from the
periphery and play out their implications.
By talking explicitly about what is uncer-
tain or unknowable, the door is opened to viewpoints that would otherwise be too
threatening. Scenario planning is an especially good technique to force teams to
examine uncomfortable possibilities, precisely because they are developed as tenta-
tive hypotheses. They should be framed as exploratory, without necessarily any for-
mal endorsement or sanction.
Emotional barriers are often even more challenging
than cognitive ones in addressing taboo scenarios. Understanding that, leaders must
foster cultural diversity, tolerance for ambiguity, and respect for differences. Deep
dialogue can only flourish in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. As such,
the organizations culture may need to be oriented more toward frank conversation
and respect for those who disagree with the majority view.
Handling Hot Potatoes
For executives caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, we offer
a two-tier answer that will irk some professional ethicists, especially those of a
Kantian persuasion. Harried executives need to navigate between the Scylla and
Charybdis of damned-if-you-consider-them and damned-if-you-ignore-them.
Transparent assessments of taboo possibilities, no matter how authentic, leads quite
likely to excoriation (as in the Larry Summers effect described earlier). However,
being oblivious to taboo scenarios can lead to disasters of epic scale, such as the ter-
rorist September 11
attacks in 2001, the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009, or
the Japanese nuclear power tragedies in the wake of a mega-earthquake and killer
There are various political, legal, and public-relations reasons why top execu-
tives might decide that the benefits of working through taboo scenarios are not
large enough to justify the risks. Paradoxically, the very nature of this determination
requires the CEO to engage in a very private taboo-scenario cognition exercise
without the benefit of other viewpoints. Accordingly, the first part of our answer
about how to handle hot-potato scenarios is gingerly.The safest approach is for
the leader to confine these taboo-scenario cognitions to his or her head. The sec-
ond, moderately riskier, approach is to limit these cognitions to the CEOstrusted
inner circle. The wider the range of perspectives canvassed, the greater the risk
of nasty political, legal, and public-relations side effects. Leaders must guard
against the strategically placed leaks, off-the-record comments, and old-fashioned
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
backstabbingespecially in highly political contexts where kiss-and-tell books
are increasingly common.
We urge organizations to adopt a gradualist approach to developing taboo
scenarios and contingency plans for the unthinkable. In doing so, they should distin-
guish blind spots from taboos. When blind spots are pointed out, the reaction tends
to be more dispassionate: I never thought of that, but Im willing to be convinced that
its a serious problem.When taboos are pointed out, all hell breaks loose: people are
offended and question the motives of those who challenge the sacred cows. Taboos are
blind spots that have somehow become turbo-charged with emotional and symbolic
significance. To help organizations cope, we offer the following seven suggestions that
can each be pursued in isolation, but yield better results in combination:
§List relevant business issues that employees prefer to avoid,engender
shame, or are off limits (in terms of shared values or an explicit edict from
on high). The issues may relate to such things as operations, internal compen-
sation, advertising, lobbying, accounting, and safety procedures. It pays to ask
recently hired employees or outside partners as they may have fresh insights
about verboten topics or the elephants in the room. Also, enlist the support of
mavericks who are more likely to surface verboten topics.
§Assess the source of the misgivings about these subjects. To what extent is it
about protecting egos, the business model, external reputation, or widely
shared cultural values extending beyond the company and industry? Does
the taboo subject violate peoples cognitive frames (e.g., when a risk is men-
tioned, do the engineers say that it cant happen) or is it more anchored in
emotion (such as denying that anything the company does might be unethi-
cal, illegal, unjust, or stupid). It is also important to ask how easily and con-
vincingly the taboo trade-off can be recast as a tragic choice.
§Score the relevance of each taboo subject in terms of its potential for damage
to the companys well-being as well as the probability of this happening. It
may help to lay out an influence diagram to explicate the underlying structure
of why the issue matters. Toulmins theory of arguments offers a practical
framework in which claims can be examined in terms of such things as evi-
dence, rebuttals, and warrants.
The more taboo exploration sessions might
be conducted with legal counsel present, to provide protection against discov-
ery if litigation should develop around the topics discussed.
§If several taboo issues are interconnected and surrounded by uncertainty,
develop scenarios that illustrate the full of range of issues, including taboo
scenarios, and how they might play out. If skeptics see that the underlying
uncertainty is being named and acknowledged, and presented as just one
of several possibilities, their opposition may lessen. If the organization
already uses scenario planning, try to make at least one of the scenarios
an unthinkable one in which some of the taboo viewpoints are more fully
§Motivate the development of taboo scenarios by pointing out how common
they are, and that no organization is immune. Examine the past and conduct
an audit of past taboos that should have been surfaced sooner. As with
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
serious illness or accidents, we assume they happen mostly to others.
Explain that organizations tend to get blindsided because they filter out those
peripheral signals that do not fit the prevailing mental model or value sys-
tem, just as people fail to notice when dealt a playing card in a color other
than the one theyve been lead to expect (such as a red spade).
§If opposition is especially high to an important taboo view, create an organ-
izational unit that is tasked with challenging the received wisdom.These
so-called red teams, which are often used in military campaigns, play the role
of the loyal opposition, gathering data to prove that the current plan or strat-
egy is not working or is morally objectionable. Their formation creates organ-
izational legitimacy as well as the kind of dialectic tension needed to engender
deep dialog in the organization.
§Consider using shock therapy in strategy workshops by asking why and how
the company may be out of existence in 5 years (pre-mortems) or why some
executives might be in prison perhaps. Had Shearson Lehman conducted this
kind of exercise, they may have sooner seen the hidden risks they were taking
with various exotic species of collateralized debt. Although such doomsday
questions may seem implausible as well as disloyal, their aim is noble. The
intent is to identify potential pathways to failure that can still be prevented
now by changing course.
The above exercises engage an organization in a form of mental and emo-
tional stress-testing. They help it see the limitations of the current strategy, business
model, or value system. As with Al GoresmovieAn Inconvenient Truth and the more
extreme counter-cultural movies produced by Michael Moore such as Roger and Me,
Fahrenheit 9/11,orSicko, the truth is often deliberately bent to make a point. Just as
the prosecutor builds a one-sided case in the courtroom, countered by a comparably
biased story from the defense attorney, arguments taken to the extreme can help the
jury find the truth. Nonetheless, there must be balance since the more extreme a sce-
nario, the less credible it becomes. Taboo scenarios must be moderated enough to
avoid being dismissed as the incoherent mutterings of a lost prophet.
Organizational Hypocrisy
The approach sketched above seeks to expand the zone of open-minded
thinking and dispassionate hypothesis testing. This mode of thinking appeals to
managers trained in principles of micro-economic rationality, which is rooted in
the 18
century European Enlightenment tradition that supplanted faith with rea-
son. However, the more thoroughly CEOs implement our seven-step enlighten-
ment strategy, the more they are at risk of being Larry Summers-ized. They risk
losing their bully pulpit because they failed to respect the boundaries of what peo-
ple are willing to hear.
Suppose that the Secretary of Homeland Security were caught seriously enter-
taining the benefits of racial-ethnic-religious profiling at airports and beyond. That
would be the end of his or her political career, notwithstanding a strong Bayesian
justification for this approach. However, if the costs of refraining from such profiling
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
were eventually to become prohibitive (and the indiscriminate-security-screening
tolerance of the American public does seem stretched), that too might end his or
her political career. In this case, circumstances suggest a Machiavellian solution:
obfuscate the trade-offs by embracing a vague public-decision posture that does two
things: covertly takes into account the taboo scenario (via the nebulous concept of
behavior profilingthat uses unspecified proxy indicators that are weighted in
unspecified multivariate algorithms); and permits plausible deniability (whenever
anyone raises the first point, issue indignant declarations that behavioral profiling is
in no shape or form ethnic-racial profiling).
The second part of our answer (beyond the seven steps above) of how to
handle taboo scenarios may itself be taboo. It is certainly not routinely highlighted
in the ethics curricula of leading business schools. However, intellectual honesty
suggests there is often a strong case for a measured dose of strategic opacity. Political
survival requires that executives approach taboo scenarios stealthily, with plausible-
deniability scripts ready at hand. Obfuscation may be a crucial tool for executives
who want to perform their fiduciary duty but do not want to be engulfed in a polit-
ical firestorm. All this implies a degree of institutionalized hypocrisy: the insiders
know we are thinking about X, but our public stance is that the organization would
never consider thinking about X. Unfortunately, the political and legal contexts
within which leaders have to function may require such Janus-faced approach. If
so, authentic leadership is thrown out the window in favor of Realpolitik, an art
practiced especially well in the public sector and with strong historical roots to
Machiavellis book The Prince.
This prescriptive stance puts us greatly at odds with Kantian ethicists who
would accuse obfuscating leaders of breaching the sacred categorical imperative to
be truthful. To survive, many organizations may have to institutionalize hypocrisy
in at least some of their decision processes. Insofar as readers view us as arguing
for strategic vagueness in top executivesenough to navigate the Scylla and Charyb-
dis threats while stopping far short of anything that would violate fiduciary duty
we have transgressed at least some readersmoral boundaries. Of course, no right-
thinking CEO would publicly admit to pursuing such a lowbrow Machiavellian
approach to business, even if many do so in practice. Indeed, they may have no
We recognize that the Realpolitik approach carries significant slippery-slope
risk. However, we see it as manageable. Boards of Directors should aspire to hire real-
ist CEOs who recognize the complexity of the trade-offs. This does not mean that
Boards must lose the capacity to distinguish tough-minded realists from sociopaths
who deceive without compunction. Organizations can carve ethical breakpoints into
slippery slopes that signal when candor again becomes obligatory. The most compel-
ling breakpoint is the affirmation that obfuscation, or even duplicity, might become
acceptable when fiduciary duty compels CEOs to wrestle with ethics-efficiency
dilemmas of the highest order. Such moments of truth underscore how lonely it
can be at the top and that their resolution may not always be amenable to the laud-
able principles of authentic leadership.
Students of judgment and choice have long paid homage to normative mod-
els of rationality that are anchored in utilitarian perspectives. People are viewed as
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
intuitive economists aspiring to maximize utility or as intuitive scientists trying to
discern predictive regularities to reveal the truth.
In the last 40 years, scholars
have developed sophisticated behavioral models that identify common mistakes
people make when they try to be good intuitive economists or scientists.
academic streams are profoundly important, but research on sacred values suggests
a supplementary perspective. This alternative view sees people as intuitive theolo-
gians, seekers of deep meaning who identify intensely with sacred values and
try to protect them from secular encroachments.
Intuitive theologians are usually
highly suspicious, and often unapologetically so, of the classic Enlightenment values
of open-minded inquiry and free markets. Opportunity costs be damned, some
trade-offs should never be contemplated, some statistical analyses never be
invoked, and some lines of inquiry never pursued.
All this leaves practical business leaders in a quandary: which logic shall pre-
vail in which circumstance? The most pragmaticbusiness-likeresponse is to
examine the issues through the lenses of both the rational economist and intuitive
theologian and then reframe, whenever possible, taboo trade-offs as tragic choices.
The danger of one-sided views of human nature is that they lead to lopsided business
strategies that are easily overturned by taboo scenarios. Managing taboos is one of
the greatest challenges facing far-sighted leaders in todays multi-cultural, intercon-
nected, and uncertain business environment where dangers and opportunities lurk
in surprising corners.
1. Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins, Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen
Coming and How to Prevent Them (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2004).
2. Stanly Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Cambridge: Polity, 2001).
3. <>.
4. <>.
5. Chaim Fershtman, Uri Gneezy, and Moshe Hoffman, Taboos and Identity: Considering the
Unthinkable,American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, 3/2 (May 2011): 139-164.
6. J. Haidt, The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral
Judgment,Psychological Review, 108/4 (October 2001): 814-834.
7. P.E. Tetlock, Coping with Trade-Offs: Psychological Constraints and Political Implications,
in S. Lupia, M. McCubbins, and S. Popkin, eds., Political Reasoning and Choice (Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press, 2000), pp. 239263.
8. E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life,2
edition (London: Allen and Unwin,
1976); Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, translated by Willard
R. Trask (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1961).
9. For gender dimensions in other cultures, see G. Hofstede, Masculinity and Femininity: The Taboo
Dimension of National Cultures (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998). Also see R. Kilmann
and I.I. Mitroff, Corporate Taboos as the Key to Unlocking Culture,in R.H. Kilmann, ed., Gain-
ing Control of the Corporate Culture (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1985). 184-199.
10. R.B. Edgerton, Rules, Exceptions, and Social Order (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,
11. The importance of ruthless truth seeking in business is clearly presented in Larry Bossidy and
Ram Charan, Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters To Get Things Right (New York, NY: Crown
Business, 2004).
12. Tetlock (2000), op. cit.
13. This result is in line with Ellen Langers work on the pervasiveness of mindless processing of
justifications and excuses. See E. Langer, Mindfulness (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1989).
14. J. Martin, Deconstructing Organizational Taboos: The Suppression of Gender Conflict in Organ-
izations,Organization Science, 1/4 (1990): 339-359; D.A. Thomas, Mentoring and Irrationality:
The Role of Racial Taboos,Human Resource Management, 28/2 (Summer 1989): 279-290.
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
15. G. Calabresi and P. Bobbit, Tragic Choices (New York, NY: Norton, 1978).
16. D. Kahneman and A. Tversky, Choices, Values, and Frames,American Psychologist, 39 (April
1984): 341-350.
17. Philip E. Tetlock, Orie V. Kristel, S. Beth Elson, Melanie C. Green, and Jennifer S. Lerner, The
Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates, and Heretical Coun-
terfactuals,Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78/5 (May 2000): 853-870.
18. F.X. Barron, Creativity and Personal Freedom (New York, NY: Van Nostrand, 1968).
19. Paul C. Nutt, Why Decisions Fail (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002).
20. Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, and Cass R. Sunstein, Shared Outrage and Erratic Awards:
The Psychology of Punitive Damages,Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 16/1 (April 1998): 1-42;
Robert J. MacCoun, The Costs and Benefits of Letting Juries Punish Corporations: Comment
on Viscusi,Stanford Law Review, 52/6 (July 2000): 1821-1828.
21. Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
22. Peter A. McGraw, Philip E. Tetlock, Orie V. Kristel, David Glen Mick, Michael D. Johnson,
The Limits of Fungibility: Relational Schemata and the Value of Things,Journal of Consumer
Research, 30/2 (September 2003): 219-229.
23. N. Brunsson, The Organization of Hypocrisy: Talk, Decisions and Actions in Organizations (Chiches-
ter: John Wiley & Sons, 1989).
24. P.E. Tetlock et al., Revising the Value Pluralism Model: Incorporating Social Content and
Context Postulates,in C. Seligman, J.M. Olson, and M.P. Zanna, eds., Ontario Symposium on
Social and Personality Psychology: Values (Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1996), pp. 27-58.
25. J. Baron and S. Lesher, How Serious Are Expressions of Protected Values?Journal of Exper-
imental Psychology: Applied, 6/3 (September 2000): 183-194; L. Thompson and R. Gonzalez,
Environmental Disputes: Competition for Scarce Resources and Clashing of Values,in
M.H. Bazerman, ed., Environment, Ethics, and Behavior (San Francisco, CA: New Lexington
Press, 1997), pp. 75-104.
26. George S. Day and Paul J.H. Schoemaker, Peripheral Vision: Detecting the Weak Signals that Will
Make or Break Your Company (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2006).
27. Paul J.H. Schoemaker, Scenario Planning: A Tool for Strategic Thinking,Sloan Management
Review, 36/2 (Winter 1995): 25-40; Paul J H. Schoemaker, Multiple Scenario Development:
Its Conceptual and Behavioral Foundation,Strategic Management Journal, 14/3 (March
1993): 193-213.
28. In his classic book Odyssey, Homer describes two monsters that dwelt on either side of a treach-
erous strait. Scylla, who was once a beautiful maiden loved by a sea god, was transformed into
a hideous creature because of the gods jealousy. Her cave was located on a cliff overlooking a
narrow passage of water. Opposite Scylla, under a fig tree, lived Charybdis. This was a huge
whirlpool that would suck water in and out three times a day. The key was to navigate ones
boat between Scyllas reach and Charybdiss periodic vortex.
29. Stephen E. Toulmin, The Uses of Argument (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958).
30. Bill George, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value(San Francisco, CA:
Jossey-Bass, 2004). Also see Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean, and Diana Mayer, Dis-
covering Your Authentic Leadership,Harvard Business R eview, 85/2 (February 2007): 129-138.
31. S. Chaiken and Y. Trope, Dual-Process Theories in Social Psychology (Guilford Press, 1999); T. Gilovich,
D.W. Griffin, and D. Kahneman, eds., Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (New
York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
32. D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, and A. Tversky, eds., Judgment under Uncertainty Heuristics and Biases
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Frea-
konomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (New York, NY: HarperCollins,
2005); Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions (New York,
NY: HarperCollins, 2008); Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge (New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press, 2007); Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York, NY: Farrar,
Straus, and Giroux, 2011).
33. Russell W. Belk, Melanie Wallendorf, and John F. Sherry, Jr., The Sacred and the Profane in
Consumer Behavior: Theodicy on the Odyssey,Journal of Consumer Research, 16/1 (June
1989): 1-38; Joshua Green and Jonathan Haidt, How (and Where) Does Moral Judgment
Work?Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6/12 (December 2002): 517-523.
California Management Review, Vol. 54, No. 2, pp. 120. ISSN 0008-1256, eISSN 2162-8564. © 2012 by
The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Request permission to photocopy or
reproduce article content at the University of California Presss Rights and Permissions website at DOI: 10.1525/cmr.2012.54.2.1.
Taboo Scenarios: How to Think About the Unthinkable
... At the basis of this are many persistent and widely held beliefs and values that we as a society refuse to question. Foresight can function as a means to "break" such society-wide taboos, by incorporating taboos or the "unthinkable" in scenarios (Schoemaker & Tetlock, 2012). Furthermore, in a seminal paper, Ramírez and Selin (2014) emphasize that "probability" and "plausibility" in foresight are both severely limiting perspectives. ...
... Instead of focusing on probability and plausibility, Ramírez and Selin argue, discomfort and knowledge gaps should be used to replace them as scenario-building criteria (Ramírez & Selin, 2014). We argue that making taboos explicit (Schoemaker & Tetlock, 2012) and focusing on discomfort and knowledge gaps (Ramírez & Selin, 2014), while not completely abandoning the notion of plausibility, allows for a fruitful approach that challenges dominant and often limiting ideas and assumptions about the future. ...
In recent decades, foresight has been connected to various disciplines that engage with complex societal problems, leading to specific interpretations of foresight. We offer an interdisciplinary perspective on foresight's increasing use for governance of social-ecological systems (SES). We seek to strengthen the use of foresight in this domain by bridging to insights from other disciplines that can help overcome its limitations. Participatory foresight for SES governance offers potential to elicit thinking about uncertainty and complexity, facilitate dialogue between stakeholders, and improve inclusiveness of governance processes, but often fails to be sufficiently reflexive and politically aware to be truly impactful and inclusive. It can be strengthened, we argue, by a more thorough integration with adjacent research fields: critical futures studies, critical systems theory and environmental governance. We distill key insights from these fields, including the importance of being politically reflexive about whose perspectives are considered, whom foresight processes should benefit, and the importance of co-producing methodology and outcomes. We encourage scholars and practitioners to further explore integration with these fields, highlighting the importance of inter- and transdisciplinary teams. Finally, we offer an example for how limitations of foresight as used in a particular field can be overcome through interdisciplinary integration.
... Despite the promising impacts of leveraging imagination and imagery to accelerate and promote transformative change, ongoing issues to respond at scale and in a timely fashion have been seen by many as a failure of the imagination (Brown et al., 2010;Luke, 2015;Wapner and Elver, 2016;Milkoreit, 2017). The complex and non-linear unfolding of climate impacts coupled with siloed thinking, risk aversion and cognitive overload are some of the recognised impediments to more accurate and innovative forecasts and strategic thinking for the future (Schoemaker and Tetlock, 2012;Gowing and Langdon, 2018;Nightingale et al., 2020). ...
Technical Report
Full-text available
Imagining 2050 introduced a novel approach that we termed the ‘deliberative futures workshop’, which integrates deliberative dialogues into wider democratic and multi-stakeholder systems. Central to the project’s success was its ability to harness the extensive cross-disciplinary nature of the team and the trans-disciplinary nature of the research. The co-creation of the Deliberative Futures Toolkit together with local, scientific and policy communities, provides a resource that can be used by communities and policymakers. It is generating significant interest among a range of actors seeking to engage in a deliberative way with communities in climate action discourse and in co-developing and implementing climate action solutions. The toolkit includes a range of interactive tools that can be integrated into the deliberative process and that encourages dialogue through the use of visual future-oriented methodologies. We offer insights into pathways for transition at the local level and a multi-stakeholder appraisal of these pathways using the Delphi Method to ascertain areas of divergence and synergies between these visions and those of other groups, such as policymakers and researchers.
... Counteracting interdependencies may sometimes be negatively framed compared to reinforcing interdependencies, and might therefore be downplayed and less observable for actors (Daw et al. 2015;Schoemaker and Tetlock 2012). A high number of intervening factors can also hide interdependencies for policy actors. ...
Full-text available
Policy actors address complex environmental problems by engaging in multiple and often interdependent policy issues. Policy issue interdependencies imply that efforts by actors to address separate policy issues can either reinforce (‘win–win’) or counteract (‘trade-off’) each other. Thus, if interdependent issues are managed in isolation instead of being coordinated, the most effective and well-balanced solution to the underlying problem might never be realised. This study asks if reinforcing and counteracting interdependencies have different impacts on perception and collaboration. Our empirical study of collaborative water governance in the Norrström basin, Sweden, shows that policy actors often avoid collaborating when the policy issues exhibit reinforcing interdependencies. Our evidence indicates a perceived infeasibility of acting on reinforcing interdependencies. We also find that actors do not consider counteracting interdependencies (‘trade-offs’) at all when they engage in collaboration. Further, even though actors were aware of counteracting and reinforcing interdependencies, our analyses suggest they might be less aware of the former. These findings illustrate that actors either avoid each other due to policy issue interdependencies or, at best, ignore existing interdependencies when engaging in collaboration. Our study highlights the importance of problem perception in accomplishing integrated solutions to complex environmental problems, and of how understandings of different types of interdependencies shape collaboration in environmental governance.
... That one may add the most value, even if it is initially viewed by some stakeholders as a "taboo" scenario. [4] Pitfall 9: Poor connection with key strategic concerns ...
... Beröring är en symbolisk interaktion som handlar om i vilken utsträckning man tar på varandra. En interaktion som är omgärdat av tabun (Miller 2007) och antropologer menar att tabubegrepp hjälper till att definiera gruppnormer och roller (Schoemaker & Tetlock 2012). I Polarfjorden är maskulinitet viktig, men det anses inte omanligt att en man klappar eller kramar om en annan man. ...
... To discriminate amongst chain of events which signals failure vs success course of action becomes a critical task to foster a leadership culture in sharing learning challenges gained through digital transformation experiences. Learning from failure stimulates authentic expression of leadership strengths aligned with collective outcome, which is particularly critical for experimenting alternative scenarios of collective interpretation of consequences colliding with rigid mindsets of leaders (Schoemaker & Tetlock, 2012). ...
Various technologies and applications such as cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, and learning analytics have received increased attention in recent years. The growing demand behind their adoption and exploitation in different application contexts has captured the attention of learning technology specialists, computer engineers, and business researchers who are attempting to decipher the phenomenon of personalized e-learning, its relation to already conducted research, and its implications for new research opportunities that effect innovations in teaching. Cognitive Computing in Technology-Enhanced Learning is a critical resource publication that aims to demonstrate state-of-the-art approaches of advanced data mining systems in e-learning, such as MOOCs and other innovative technologies, to improve learning analytics, as well as to show how new and advanced user interaction designs, educational models, and adoptive strategies can expand sustainability in applied learning technologies. Highlighting a range of topics such as augmented reality, ethics, and online learning environments, this book is ideal for educators, instructional designers, higher education faculty, school administrators, academicians, researchers, and students.
... Moreover, it can help stakeholders to filter, integrate, interpret, and make sense of the multitude of signals in the periphery (Schoemaker et al. 2013). And it also has the potential to help rethink and reframe "taboos" in policy contexts, thereby introducing them into the discussion (Schoemaker and Tetlock 2012). Therefore, it is thought that participatory scenario planning can help to frame the system and problems it faces in a more comprehensive manner, by broadening the scope of what to consider, thereby fostering a better system understanding. ...
Full-text available
Governance of social-ecological systems (SES) involves multiple stakeholders with different perspectives on the system and associated problems, and different ways to value and use the system. This has implications for decision making because this diversity of interests and framings may cause conflicts between stakeholders and/or marginalization of certain groups. In general, the literature agrees that strategically considered stakeholder participation is key to well-informed and legitimate SES governance and to alleviate differences and conflicts between stakeholders. Because SES represent uncertain, complex governance contexts, methodologies that address complexity and future uncertainty are needed. In this regard, participatory scenario planning is widely regarded as a useful tool. However, little explicit analysis exists about its role in framing. We therefore analyzed two scenario-guided policy formulation cases to assess how and to what extent it contributes to system and problem framing. We developed an analytical framework building on critical systems and resilience scholarship: the questions of "resilience of what, to what, for whom and over what timeframe?" are important framing dimensions. As such, we used them as the basis for our framework. We analyzed two scenario-guided policy formulation processes in East Africa, facilitated by the CGIAR's Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. We found that participatory scenario planning significantly contributes to system and problem framing and can add to efficacy, legitimacy, and analytical rigor of planning processes through involving a diverse range of stakeholders in strategic dialogues about futures. Our results also highlight its potential to make the political dimension of policy and broader SES governance processes more explicitly visible by addressing the "for whom?" dimension. We recommend designing novel participatory scenario approaches that explicitly use insights from critical system theory, incorporating questions of who decides how the system and problems are framed, who should benefit, and whose knowledge is used.
... This is particularly evident for markets that are widespread even though they are illegal. Markets for hard drugs and other taboo markets (Schoemaker and Tetlock, 2011) offer up entrepreneurial opportunities to earn extraordinary profits (Baumol, 1990). They are high-payoff, high-risk niche markets where locally enforced monopolies may prevent integration. ...
Full-text available
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore the entrepreneurial and policy consequences of the structural changes associated with postindustrialization. Design/methodology/approach – The approach uses Schumpeterian and institutional theories to predict the consequences of postindustrialization on four types of innovative markets: global mass markets; global niche markets; local mass markets and local niche markets. Findings – The paper makes two key predictions. First, global mass markets will account for most costcutting process innovations. Second, niche markets, whether global or local, will provide the bulk of product innovations. Opportunities for product innovations in niche markets multiply both as the result of a more complex economy and as the result of heterogeneous preferences of consumers with divergent learning trajectories. Social implications – The key implication of the theoretical pattern prediction of this paper is that there are increasing opportunities for entrepreneurs to introduce novelties that cater to niche demands, and this includes new lifestyle communities. The increasing diversity of values and preferences implies that one-size-fit-all policies are becoming increasingly inimical to the entrepreneurial discovery of higher-valued resource uses. Originality/value – This paper takes a standard prediction of entrepreneurial theories – that innovations become more common with an increase in economy-wide product complexity – and extends this to increasing complexity on the consumption side. With increases in opportunities for learning, consumers diverge and develop disparate lifestyles. The resultant super-diversity, which multiplies consumption niches to a much greater extent than what ethnicity-based diversity indices would imply, makes it more difficult to achieve consensus about the desirability of public policies. Keywords Mass markets, Niche markets, Globalization, Schumpeter, Connoisseurship Paper type Conceptual paper
Ein grundlegendes Verständnis von Zukunftsforschung ist es, dass die Disziplin nicht die Zukunft, sondern gegenwärtig existierende Zukunftsbilder mit großer Wirkkraft identifiziert und analysiert. Doch bei der Analyse und Weiterverarbeitung dieser gegenwärtigen Zukunftsbilder finden auch Annahmen über zukünftige Entwicklungen Eingang, welche oftmals nicht faktorisiert, kontextualisiert und objektiviert werden. So sind Szenarien und Zukunftsbilder zwangsläufig immer auch beeinflusst von den individuell-kulturellen Anschauungen, Prägungen, Werte und Normen der Autor*innen. Eine dieser Störquellen sind Tabus, welche die insbesondere die Entwicklung von Möglichkeiten- und Optionenräume teilweise massiv beeinflussen, indem sie darauf Einfluss nehmen, was für die Teilnehmer*innen in Gegenwart und Zukunft, denk- und vorstellbar ist und sein darf. Zwar wurden in der Zukunftsforschung der Einfluss von Tabus bereits als ein im Prozess zu adressierendem Problem erkannt und die Vorteile der explorativen Szenariomethode für das Ansprechen von Tabus hervorgehoben ‒ doch der praktische Umgang mit dem Thema Tabus wurde bisher nur unzureichend methodologisch adressiert. Daher ergänzt der vorliegende Artikel die bestehende Literatur, indem er zunächst ein Schlaglicht auf die Rolle von Tabus im Kontext von Foresightprozessen im Allgemeinen und danach den Fokus auf die Betrachtung von Tabus entlang der Schritte eines explorativen Szenarioprozesses legt. Anhand erfahrungsbasierter Praxisbeispiele werden hierbei die mögliche Einflussnahme sowie geeignete Vermeidungsstrategien in jedem Prozessschritt der Szenarioerstellung skizziert.
Research on moral judgment has been dominated by rationalist models, in which moral judgment is thought to be caused by moral reasoning. The author gives 4 reasons for considering the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached. The social intuitionist model is presented as an alternative to rationalist models. The model is a social model in that it deemphasizes the private reasoning done by individuals and emphasizes instead the importance of social and cultural influences. The model is an intuitionist model in that it states that moral judgment is generally the result of quick, automatic evaluations (intuitions). The model is more consistent than rationalist models with recent findings in social, cultural, evolutionary, and biological psychology, as well as in anthropology and primatology.
Many social scientists want to explain why people do what they do. A barrier to constructing such explanations used to be a lack of information on the relationship between cognition and choice. Now, recent advances in cognitive science, economics, political science, and psychology have clarified this relationship. In Elements of Reason, eighteen scholars from across the social sciences use these advances to uncover the cognitive foundations of social decision making. They answer tough questions about how people see and process information and provide new explanations of how basic human needs, the environment, and past experiences combine to affect human choices. Elements of Reason is written for a broad audience and should be read by anyone for whom 'Why do people do what they do?' is an important question. It is the rare book that transforms abstract debates about rationality and reason into empirically relevant explanations of how people choose.
We discuss the cognitive and the psy- chophysical determinants of choice in risky and risk- less contexts. The psychophysics of value induce risk aversion in the domain of gains and risk seeking in the domain of losses. The psychophysics of chance induce overweighting of sure things and of improbable events, relative to events of moderate probability. De- cision problems can be described or framed in multiple ways that give rise to different preferences, contrary to the invariance criterion of rational choice. The pro- cess of mental accounting, in which people organize the outcomes of transactions, explains some anomalies of consumer behavior. In particular, the acceptability of an option can depend on whether a negative outcome is evaluated as a cost or as an uncompensated loss. The relation between decision values and experience values is discussed. Making decisions is like speaking prose—people do it all the time, knowingly or unknowingly. It is hardly surprising, then, that the topic of decision making is shared by many disciplines, from mathematics and statistics, through economics and political science, to sociology and psychology. The study of decisions ad- dresses both normative and descriptive questions. The normative analysis is concerned with the nature of rationality and the logic of decision making. The de- scriptive analysis, in contrast, is concerned with peo- ple's beliefs and preferences as they are, not as they should be. The tension between normative and de- scriptive considerations characterizes much of the study of judgment and choice. Analyses of decision making commonly distin- guish risky and riskless choices. The paradigmatic example of decision under risk is the acceptability of a gamble that yields monetary outcomes with specified probabilities. A typical riskless decision concerns the acceptability of a transaction in which a good or a service is exchanged for money or labor. In the first part of this article we present an analysis of the cog- nitive and psychophysical factors that determine the value of risky prospects. In the second part we extend this analysis to transactions and trades. Risky Choice Risky choices, such as whether or not to take an umbrella and whether or not to go to war, are made without advance knowledge of their consequences. Because the consequences of such actions depend on uncertain events such as the weather or the opponent's resolve, the choice of an act may be construed as the acceptance of a gamble that can yield various out- comes with different probabilities. It is therefore nat- ural that the study of decision making under risk has focused on choices between simple gambles with monetary outcomes and specified probabilities, in the hope that these simple problems will reveal basic at- titudes toward risk and value. We shall sketch an approach to risky choice that
* Why do our headaches persist after taking a one-cent aspirin but disappear when we take a 50-cent aspirin? * Why does recalling the Ten Commandments reduce our tendency to lie, even when we couldn't possibly be caught? * Why do we splurge on a lavish meal but cut coupons to save 25 cents on a can of soup? * Why do we go back for second helpings at the unlimited buffet, even when our stomachs are already full? * And how did we ever start spending $4.15 on a cup of coffee when, just a few years ago, we used to pay less than a dollar? When it comes to making decisions in our lives, we think we're in control. We think we're making smart, rational choices. But are we? In a series of illuminating, often surprising experiments, MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways. Blending everyday experience with groundbreaking research, Ariely explains how expectations, emotions, social norms, and other invisible, seemingly illogical forces skew our reasoning abilities. Not only do we make astonishingly simple mistakes every day, but we make the same types of mistakes, Ariely discovers. We consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. We fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions on what we want, and we overvalue what we already own. Yet these misguided behaviors are neither random nor senseless. They're systematic and predictable--making us predictably irrational. From drinking coffee to losing weight, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, Ariely explains how to break through these systematic patterns of thought to make better decisions. Predictably Irrational will change the way we interact with the world--one small decision at a time. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)(cover)