When word surfaced in 2008 that a respected Wall Street investment manager had been running a decades-old Ponzi scheme swindling his clients out of $18 billion, Americans were shocked. How could this trusted businessman and pillar of the New York community have so brazenly ripped off his friends and colleagues? This wasn’t the man they knew, one after another of his victims said. He was prudent and loyal—that’s why they trusted him with their life savings. How could someone who seemed to embody honesty turn out to be the biggest crook in financial history?
One person who wasn’t surprised by the Bernie Madoff scandal was Ann Tenbrunsel, the Rex and Alice A. Martin Professor of Business Ethics and co-director of the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide at Notre Dame. Tenbrunsel is the co-author, with Max H. Bazerman, of Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It. She has been thinking about people like Madoff since the early 1990s (coincidentally, just about the time Madoff was starting his Ponzi scheme), when she was studying for a doctorate in organizational behavior at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Working with professors Bazerman, now at Harvard Business School, and David Messick, professor emeritus at Kellogg, Tenbrunsel helped pioneer the field of behavioral ethics, which studies the psychology of ethical behavior.
“I first got interested in the subject as a kind of naïve graduate student who wanted to know why good people do bad things,” Tenbrunsel said. “[Behavioral ethics] is a really popular field now, but it wasn’t very popular back then. At that time, most work on ethics took a normative perspective, asking what people should do rather than what they actually do.”