Brandywine professor takes ethics study to international conference in Hawaii

MEDIA, Pa. — In December, Susan Fredricks, associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Brandywine, presented at the 2017 Cross Cultural Research Conference in Maui, Hawaii.

Her study, “Undergraduate Students’ Ethical Choices of Personal Financial Gain versus Ethical Financial Sensitivity by Major and Geographic Location,” explored the ethical tendencies of college students with different majors and nationalities.

The study obtained data from the students using a business-based scenario designed to test ethical decision-making. In the scenario, the students were asked to imagine working at a jewelry store and conversing with a customer who wants to buy a nice watch he cannot afford.

“What do you do?” asked Fredricks. “Do you steer them towards a more affordable option? Do you let them buy the watch even though the cost could harm them? Do you tell them to come back another time? It poses a conflict between personal gain and consumer attention.”

Fredricks’ study collected responses from students from the United States, New Zealand, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Belarus and other countries.

After analyzing the data, she found that students from the United States were more likely to tell the customer to look for a cheaper watch and that students from former Soviet countries were more likely to let them buy the expensive one.

“That seems antithetical, since Eastern-bloc countries are primarily geared towards working for the better of all,” she said. “One possible explanation is the idea of social responsibility — if you can’t afford the watch, shame on you — or a tolerance for what we call hedonistic purchases.”

According to Fredricks, very little research exists exploring the changes in ethical approaches over time in post-Soviet countries.

“It’s certainly something I would like to explore more moving forward,” she said.

According to its website, the Cross Cultural Research Conference focuses on cross-cultural research in any aspect of business or management, but also welcomes researchers from other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics and communications.

“I was the only communications faculty member there,” said Fredricks, “but communications, as a field, has a very strong foot in the business world, and ethics is truly part of all realms.”

Most impressively, the conference allowed academics from the United States — many of whom had international roots — to collaborate with colleagues from Istanbul Technical University, Technológico de Monterrey and several European institutions.

“The cross-cultural component of this conference was very significant — seeing how different people in different countries react ethically,” she said. “This conference was all about the intersection of different cultures. It was a small group, but full of tremendous insight.”