Selfishness threatens both our happiness and our prosperity

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

This book deals with a basic question: What’s the best way to get people to behave themselves?

Modern legal, policy, and management experts often assume human beings are selfish creatures who respond only to punishments and rewards, and who can’t be trusted to do a good job or refrain from lying, cheating and stealing—unless given the right “incentives.”

Yet every day we see people behaving ethically and unselfishly. Few of us mug the elderly or steal the paper from our neighbor’s yard; many of us go out of our way to help strangers. We nevertheless overlook the good aspects of our own natures—fixating on the bad things people do and on how we can stop them.

Cultivating Conscience argues that this focus on bad behavior obscures the reality, and importance, of goodness—leading us to neglect the crucial role our better impulses could play in shaping society.

I explore the idea that, rather than leaning on the power of greed to channel human behavior, our laws and policies might often do better to focus on and promote the force of conscience—the cheapest and most effective police force one could ask for.

Cultivating Conscience starts by exploring the phenomenon of conscience (or, as a behavioral scientist might call it, “unselfish prosocial behavior”). I examine how and why the idea of conscience has dropped out of sight in most legal and policy discussions, to be replaced by an unthinking reliance on a homo economicus model of human behavior as primarily selfish and opportunistic.

The book surveys the extensive and growing scientific evidence on conscience. Drawing from behavioral economics, social psychology, and evolutionary biology, it demonstrates that, far from being rare and quirky, conscientious behavior is both common and predictable. In particular, certain social cues—especially instructions from authority, beliefs about others’ selfishness or unselfishness, and perceptions of benefits to others—play powerful roles in triggering unselfish prosocial behavior.

Cultivating Conscience uses these findings to develop a simple recipe we can use to determine when most people will “follow their conscience”—and when they won’t. This approach allows us to apply the lessons of behavioral science to our understanding of how laws and rules shape human behavior.

Using examples drawn from negligence law, contract law, and criminal law, Cultivating Conscience shows how we can put conscience to work—to understand the law better, to use it more effectively, and to promote better people. The book offers an approach to cultivating ethical and cooperative behavior that can be employed not only by lawmakers and legal experts, but also by employers, educators, management specialists, charitable organizations, and civic leaders.

“Few of us mug the elderly or steal the paper from our neighbor’s yard; many of us go out of our way to help strangers.”

The wide angle

I first became interested in the phenomenon of conscience through my work in corporate law.

Some readers may find this odd: the business world is often described as a place where the selfish pursuit of material gain dominates human behavior. But after studying corporations for more than two decades, I became convinced that the homo economicus model of purely selfish behavior did a surprisingly poor job of explaining what I observed from the inside. Corporations characterized by a high degree of internal trust, honesty and cooperation usually thrived. Those torn apart by infighting and opportunism often failed.

What is true of corporations seems true of societies as well. The rule of law is essential to peace and economic growth. Conscience, in turn, seems essential to maintaining the rule of law.

Statistical evidence links cultural habits of unselfish, prosocial behavior with both economic prosperity and personal satisfaction. Evidence is also accumulating that ethical, unselfish behavior is on the decline in the United States.

Just as environmental scientists have become alarmed about the many sources of data that point to the possibility of global warming, some social scientists are becoming worried about the possibility of “conscience cooling.”

If Americans are indeed becoming more selfish, unethical, and asocial—concerned only with their own material welfare, and not with the fates of their communities, nation, or future generations—the shift threatens both our happiness and our prosperity.

It’s time to cultivate conscience. The right kinds of laws play an important part in that process.

November 17, 2010

A close-up

On a warm summer evening in Los Angeles, Franco Gonzales, an undocumented immigrant working as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant, was waiting alone at a bus stop. An armored car drove by. It rear doors mysteriously swung open, dropping a plastic bag that contained $203,000 in cash at Gonzales’ feet. Gonzales took the money home. After a long night spent wrestling with his conscience, he called the police to return the money to its anonymous owner.

Gonzales’ story was unusual enough to be reported in the national press. (It isn’t every day a small fortune lands at someone’s feet.) But the remarkable tale of the honest dishwasher is not really that remarkable.

Civic life in the Unites States is filled with similar, if more modest, acts of decency and forbearance. Beefy young men wait patiently behind frail senior citizens instead of pushing to the front of the line. Drivers wait for red light to turn green, even when the police are out of sight. People withdraw cash from ATM machines without bothering to carry weapons or hire armed guards. Kidnapping for ransom is rare and unusual.

Indeed, conscientious behavior is so deeply woven into the warp and woof of American life that it usually goes unnoticed. We take for granted the innumerable small, unselfish acts that bind us together in a civil society, just as we take for granted the gravitational force that keeps us from floating out into space.

But sometimes gravity produces results dramatic enough to make us ponder: when an apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head, he stopped to think. When a dishwasher goes out of his way to return $203,000 in cash to its anonymous owner, we should also stop to think. What’s going on here, and how can we get more of it?

“Rather than leaning on the power of greed to channel human behavior, our laws and policies might often do better to focus on and promote the force of conscience—the cheapest and most effective police force one could ask for.”


We ignore the force of conscience at our peril. The scientific evidence demonstrates that we can craft better laws and rules by employing critical social cues to encourage more unselfish, ethical behavior in many realms—including politics and business. By the same token, we can also encourage selfishness, opportunism, and illegality.

I wrote this book to show how our current emphasis on self-interest and material incentives may have contributed to the catastrophic political missteps and financial scandals of recent memory by encouraging corrupt and selfish actions, and by undermining society’s collective moral compass. If we care about effective laws and civilized society, the powers of conscience are simply too important for us to ignore.

© 2010 Lynn Stout
Lynn Stout Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People Princeton University Press 296 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches ISBN 978 0691139951

Lynn Stout is the Paul Hastings Professor of Corporate and Securities Law at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. An internationally recognized expert in the fields of corporate governance, law and economics, and moral behavior, she lectures widely and has authored numerous articles and books on these topics. Lynn Stout is a frequent commentator for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the PBS Newshour and National Public Radio. She received her education from Princeton University and Yale Law School.

Cover Interview of
November 17, 2010