01 Dec 2014

Research Brief: The Power of Could


Say you’re in a bind, a tough one. You’ve got cancer and your only hope is chemo—the problem is, it’s wildly expensive and you’re flat broke. Do you follow your moral compass, even if it means dying? Or do you leverage your knack for chemistry and raise some quick cash selling meth? A good man, dropped into the plot of Breaking Bad, might ask himself what he should do.

Walter White is not an aberration: Most people facing ethical dilemmas reflexively ask just that, according to a new paper coauthored by Ting Zhang, a doctoral student in the Organizational Behavior Program at HBS. But that question unwittingly locks you into a tradeoff, upholding your moral principles in one way but breaking them in another. Instead, strategically asking yourself what you could do often generates an array of new solutions that might satisfy seemingly irreconcilable demands.

Zhang and her faculty advisers, Professors Francesca Gino and Josh Margolis, conducted four studies to explore how this simple shift in perspective can help people reach “moral insight,” which “entails relaxing assumptions that there are fixed options from which to choose.” According to the studies, simply asking what you could do—rather than what you should do—helped participants see existing options as less incompatible, generated a broader range of creative solutions, and led more directly to moral insight in decision-making with others. “What we were quite surprised by,” Zhang says, “was that one change in the question—literally one word—could transform the way people approach these problems.”

A lot of academic research has focused on the motivations of people who fall short on some moral challenge. But this new paper is one of the few examining how well-meaning people try to do the right thing. Those who succeed often do so by employing the lesson revealed by Zhang and her coauthors: The path to good might begin by embracing could.—Francis Storrs

“Does ‘Could’ Lead to Good? Toward a Theory of Moral Insight,” by Ting Zhang, Francesca Gino, and Joshua Margolis, HBS Working Paper.


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