Bioethics Blogs

Ethics at the Chocolate Factory

Two women are being trained for work on a factory assembly line. As products arrive on a conveyor belt, their task is to wrap each product and place it back on the belt. Their supervisor warns them that failing to wrap even one product is a firing offense, but once they get started, the work seems easy. Then the belt speeds up.

Recognize the scene? Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory is a classic episode  from the 1950s television program I Love Lucy.It is also a good illustration of how people make rapid judgments in response to changing conditions at work, devising workarounds – shortcuts, fixes, patches – to bridge the gap between the rules of work and what’s actually happening. When I give talks, usually to physicians, nurses, and other health workers, about the ethics of workarounds, I often use this clip, in part because it’s fun to have four minutes of nonstop laughter during an ethics lecture, but mostly because shows how workarounds happen.

Thanks to research from cognitive neuroscience and behavioral psychology, synthesized by Daniel Kahneman and others, we now understand that “fast,” instinctive thinking and “slow,” reasoned thinking are both part of how we think, and that fast thinking occurs so quickly that we may not recognize what’s going on, or that we’re ruling out options as we make choices under pressure. When Lucy and Ethel notice that the conveyor belt has sped up and that unwrapped chocolates are sliding past them, putting them at risk of being fired, they devise a workaround: grabbing the chocolates off the belt, and eating them, or hiding them under their hats or in their bras.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.