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Pinto Fires and Personal Ethics:

A Script Analysis of Missed Opportunities De nni s A. ~' " ' ~ J l o l a

ABSTRACT. This article details the personal involvement of
the author in the early stages of the infamous Pinto fire case.
The paper first presents an insider account of the context
and decision envi ronment within whi ch he failed to initiate
an early recall of defective vehicles. A cognitive script
analysis of the personal experience is then offered as an
explanation of factors that led to a decision that now is
commonl y seen as a definitive study in uuethicaI corporate
behavior. The main analytical thesis is that script schemas
that were guiding cognition and action at the time pre-
cluded consideration of issues in ethical terms because the
scripts did not include ethical dimensions.
I n t he s u mme r o f 1972 I ma de one o f t hose i mp o r -
t ant t ransi t i ons i n life, t he si gni fi cance o f wh i c h
becomes obvi ous onl y i n ret rospect . I l eft academe
wi t h a BS i n Engi neer i ng Science and an MBA t o
ent er t he wor l d o f bi g business. I j o i n e d For d Mot or
Co mp a n y at Wo r l d Headquar t er s i n De a r bor n
Mi chi gan, ful fi l l i ng a l ong- s t andi ng dr e a m t o wo r k
i n t he hear t o f t he aut o i ndust ry. I fel t conf i dent t hat
I was i n t he r i ght pl ace at t he r i ght t i me t o ma ke a
Dennis A. Gioia is Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior
in the Department of Management and Organization, The
Smeal College of Business Administration, Pennsylvania State
University. Professor Gioia's primary research and writing focus
of the nature and uses of complex cognitive processes by organiza-
tion members and the ways that these processes affect sensemak-
ing, communication, influence and organizational change. His
most recent research interests have to do with the less rational,
more intuitive, emotional, and political aspects of organizational
life - those fascinating arenas where people in organizations tend
to subvert management scholars' heartfelt attempts to have them
behave more rationally. Prior to this ivory tower career, he worked
in the real world as an engineering aide for Boeing Aerospace at
Kennedy Space Center and as vehicle recall coordinator for Ford
Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan.
di fference. My i ni t i al j o b title was "Pr obl em Analyst"
- a catchall label t hat superfi ci al l y descri bed wha t I
wo u l d be t hi nki ng about and doi ng i n t he c omi ng
years. On some deeper level, however , t he title
paradoxi cal l y came t o c onnot e t he ma n y critical
t hi ngs t hat I wo u l d not be t hi nki ng about and act i ng
u p o n .
By t hat s u mme r o f 1972 I was very. ful l o f myself.
I had me t my life' s goals t o t hat poi nt wi t h some
not abl e success. I had vi r t ual l y ever yt hi ng I want ed,
i ncl udi ng a s t r ongl y- hel d val ue syst em t hat had l ed
me t o quest i on ma n y o f t he perspect i ves and pr ac-
tices I observed i n t he wor l d a r ound me. No t t he
least of t hese was a p r o f o u n d distaste for t he
Vi e t na m war, a distaste t hat had f ound me par t i ci -
pat i ng i n vari ous demons t r at i ons against its c onduc t
and speaki ng as a par t of a col l ect i ve voi ce on t he
mor al and et hi cal fai l ure o f a democr at i c gover n-
me n t t hat wo u l d a t t e mpt t o j us t i f y it. I also f ound
mys el f i n MBA classes rai l i ng agai nst t he c onduc t o f
businesses o f t he era, whose actions s t r uck :me as
r angi ng f r o m i nconsi der at e t o i ndi f f er ent t o si mpl y
unet hi cal . To me t he typical stance o f business
s eemed t o be one of di sdai n for, r at her t han r es pon-
sibility t owar d, t he society o f wh i c h t hey wer e
p r o mi n e n t member s . I wa nt e d s ome t hi ng t o change.
Accordi ngl y, I cul t i vat ed my social awareness; I hel d
my pri nci pl es hi gh; I espoused my i nt e nt i on t o hel p
a t r oubl ed wor l d; and I wor e my hai r long. By any
meas ur e I was a pr ot ot ypi cal "Chi l d o f t he '60s."
Ther ef or e, i t st r uck qui t e a f ew o f my fri ends i n
t he MBA pr ogr a m as r at her st range t hat i was i n t he
pr ogr a m at all. ("If you are so di s appoi nt ed i n
business, wh y st udy business?"). Subsequent l y, t hey
wer e pract i cal l y d u mb s t r u c k wh e n I accept ed t]he j o b
offer f r o m Ford, appar ent l y one o f t he great p u r -
veyors o f t he ver y act i ons t reviled. I c ount e r e d t hat
i t was an ideal strategy, ar gui ng t hat I woul d have a
Journal of Business Ethics 11: 379--389, 1992.
1992 KluwerAcademic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
380 Dennis A. Gioia
greater chance o f i nfl uenci ng social change i n busi -
ness i f I wor ked behi nd t he scenes on t he inside,
rat her t han as a st ri dent voice on t he outside. It was
clear to me t hat somebody needed t o pr od these
staid compani es i nt o socially responsible action. I
certainly ai med to do my part. Besides, I l i ked cars.
Into the fray: setting the personal stage
Predictably enough, I f ound mysel f on t he fast track
at Ford, participating i n a "t our nament " type o f
socialization (Van Maanen, 1978), engaged i n a
compet i t i on for recogni t i on wi t h ot her MBA' s who
had recent l y j oi ned t he company. And I qui ckl y
became caught up i n t he game. The compa W itself
was dynamic; t he envi r onment of business, especially
t he auto industry, was intriguing; t he j ob was
challenging and t he pay was great. The psychic
rewards of wor ki ng and succeeding i n a maj or
corporat i on proved unexpect edl y seductive. I really
became i nvol ved i n t he j ob.
Market forces (international compet i t i on) and
gover nment regul at i on (vehicle safety and emissions)
wer e affecting t he auto i ndust ry i n disruptive ways
t hat onl y later woul d be c ommon to t he wi der
business and social arena. They also pr oduced an
i ndust ry and a company t hat felt buffeted, belea-
guered, and t hreat ened by t he changes. The threats
wer e most l y external, o f course, and l ed to a strong
feeling o f we- vs- t hem, wher e we (Ford members)
needed to def end ourselves against t hem (all t he
out si de parties and voices demandi ng t hat we change
our ways). Even at this time, an i nt ri gui ng quest i on
for me was whet her I was a "we" or a "them." It was
becomi ng apparent to me t hat my perspective was
changing. I had l ong since cut my hair.
By t he s ummer o f 1973 I was pi t ched i nt o t he
t hi ck o f t he battle. I became Ford's Field Recall
Coor di nat or - not a posi t i on t hat was particularly
hi gh i n t he hierarchy, but one t hat wi el ded i nfl uence
for beyond its level. I was i n charge of t he opera-
tional coordi nat i on o f all o f t he recall campaigns
current l y under way and also i n charge o f t racki ng
i ncomi ng i nf or mat i on to i dent i fy devel opi ng pr ob-
lems. Therefore, I was i n a posi t i on to make initial
r ecommendat i ons about possible furore recalls. The
most critical type of recalls wer e labeled "safety
campaigns" - those t hat dealt wi t h t he possibility o f
cust omer i nj ury or death. These ranged f r om
straight-forward occurrences such as brake faiture
and wheel s failing of f vehicles, to mor e exotic and
f a i n t l y humor ous failure modes such as det achi ng
axles t hat announced t hei r presence by spi nni ng
forward and sl ammi ng i nt o t he startled driver' s door
and speed cont rol units t hat l ocked on, and refused
to disengage, as t he care accelerated wi l dl y whi l e t he
spooked driver futilely t ri ed to shut i t off. Safety
recall campaigns, however, also encompassed t he
mor e sobering possibility o f on- boar d gasoline fires
and explosions . . . .
The Pi nt o case: setti ng the corporate stage
In 1970 Ford i nt r oduced t he Pinto, a small car t hat
was i nt ended to compet e wi t h t he t hen current
challenge f r om European cars and t he omi nous
presence on t he hor i zon o f Japanese manufacturers.
The Pi nt o was br ought f r om i ncept i on to pr oduc-
t i on i n t he record t i me o f approximately 25 mont hs
(compared to t he i ndust ry average o f 43 months), a
t i me frame t hat suggested t he necessity for doi ng
things expediently. In addi t i on t o t he t i me pressure,
t he engi neeri ng and devel opment teams were r e-
qui red to adhere to t he pr oduct i on "limits of 2 000"
for t he di mi nut i ve car: it was not to exceed ei t her
$2 000 i n cost or 2 000 pounds i n weight. Any
decisions t hat t hreat ened these targets or t he t i mi ng
of t he car's i nt r oduct i on wer e discouraged. Unde r
normal condi t i ons design, styling, product planning,
engi neeri ng, etc., wer e compl et ed pri or to pr oduc-
t i on tooling. Because o f t he foreshort ened t i me
frame, however, some o f these usually sequential
processes wer e execut ed i n parallel.
As a consequence, t ool i ng was already wel l under
way (thus "freezing" t he basic design) whe n rout i ne
crash testing revealed t hat t he Pluto' s fuel t ank oft en
r upt ur ed whe n struck f r om t he rear at a relatively
l ow speed (31 mp h i n crash tests). Reports (revealed
muc h later) showed t hat t he fuel t ank failures were
t he result o f some rather marginal desi gn features.
The t ank was posi t i oned bet ween t he rear bumper
and t he rear axle ( a standard i ndust ry practice for
t he time). Dur i ng impact, however, several studs
pr ot r udi ng f r om t he rear o f t he axle housi ng woul d
punct ur e holes i n t he tank; t he fuel filler neck also
was likely to rip away. Spilled gasoline t hen coul d be
Pinto Fires and Personal Ethics 381
ignited by sparks. Ford had in fact crash-tested 11
vehicles; 8 of these cars suffered potentially cata-
strophic gas tank ruptures. The only 3 cars that
survived intact had each been modified in some way
to protect the tank.
These crash tests, however, were conducted under
the guidelines of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety
Standard 301 which had been proposed in 1968 and
strenuously opposed by the auto industry. FMVSS
301 was not actually adopted until 1976; thus, at the
time of the tests, Ford was not in violation of the
law. There were several possibilities for fixing the
problem, including the option of redesigning the
tank and its location, which would have produced
tank integrity in a high-speed crash. That solution,
however, was not only time consuming and expen-
sive, but also usurped trunk space, which was seen as
a critical competitive sales factor. One of the pro-
duction modifications to the tank, however, would
have cost only $11 to install, but given the tight
margins and restrictions of the "limits of 2 000,"
there was reluctance to make even this relatively
minor change. There were other reasons for not
approving the change, as well, including a wide-
spread industry belief that all small cars were
inherently unsafe solely because of their size and
weight. Another more prominent reason was a
corporate belief that "safety doesn't sell." This obser-
vation was attributed to Lee Iacocca and stemmed
from Ford's earlier attempt to make safety a sales
theme, an attempt that failed rather dismally in the
Perhaps the most controversial reason for reject-
ing the production change to the gas tank, however,
was Ford's use of cost-benefit analysis to justify the
decision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Asso-
ciation (NHTSA, a federal agency) had approved the
use of cost-benefit analysis as an appropriate means
for establishing automotive safety design standards.
The controversial aspect in making such calculations
was that they required the assignment of some
specific value for a human life. In 1970, that value
was deemed to be approximately $200 000 as a "cost
to society" for each fatality. Ford used NHTSA's
figures in estimating the costs and benefits of
altering the tank production design. An internal
memo, later revealed in court, indicates the follow-
ing tabulations concerning potential fires (Dowie,
Costs: $137 000 000
(Estimated as the costs of a production fix to all similarly
designed cars and trucks with the gas tank aft of the axle
(12 500 000 vehicles $11/vehicle))
Benefits: 849 530 000
(Estimated as the savings from preventing (180 projected
deaths x $200 000/death) + (180 projected burn injuries
x $67 000/injury) + (2 100 burned cars $700/car))
The cost-benefit decision was then construed as
straightforward: No production fix would be under-
taken. The philosophical and ethical implications of
assigning a financial value for hmnan life or dis-
figurement do not seem to have been a major
consideration in reaching this decision.
Pintos and personal experience
When I took over the Recall Coordinator's .job in
1973 I inherited the oversight of about 100 active
recall campaigns, more than half of which were
safety-related. These ranged from minimal in size
(replacing front wheels that were likely to break on
12 heavy trucks) to maximal (repairing the power
steering pump on millions of cars). In addition, there
were quite a number of safety problems that were
under consideration as candidates for addition to the
recall list. (Actually, "problem" was a word whose
public use was forbidden by the legal office at the
time, even in service bulletins, because it suggested
corporate admission of culpability. "Condition" was
the sanctioned catchword.) In addition to these
potential recall candidates, there were ma W files
containing field reports of alleged component failure
(another forbidden word) that had led to accidents,
and in some cases, passenger injury. Beyond these
existing files, I began to construct my own files of
incoming safety problems.
One of these new files concerned reports of Pintos
"lighting up" (in the words of a field representative)
in rear-end accidents. There were actually very few
reports, perhaps because component failure was not
initially assumed. These cars simply were consumed
by fire after apparently very low speed accidents.
Was there a problem? Not as far as I was concerned.
My cue for labeling a case as a problem either
required high frequencies of occurrence or directly-
traceable causes. I had little time for speculative
382 De n n i s A . Gi oi a
cont empl at i on on pot ent i al probl ems t hat di d not fit
a pat t er n t hat suggested known courses of act i on
l eadi ng to possible r ecal l I do, however, r e me mbe r
bei ng di squi et ed by a field r epor t accompani ed by
graphic, det ai l ed phot os of t he remai ns of a bur ned-
out Pi nt o i n whi ch several peopl e had died. Al -
t hough t hat r epor t became part o f my file, I di d not
flag it as any special case.
It is difficult to convey t he over whel mi ng c om-
plexity and pace of t he j ob of keepi ng t rack of so
many active or pot ent i al recall campaigns. It remai ns
t he busiest, most i nf or mat i on- f i l l ed j ob I have ever
hel d or woul d want to hold. Each case r equi r ed a
myr i ad o f i nf or mat i on- gat her i ng and execut i on
stages. I di st i nct l y r emember t hat t he i nf or mat i on-
processing demands led me to confuse t he facts o f
one pr obl em case wi t h anot her on several occasions
because t he t el l -t al e signs o f recall candi dat e cases
wer e so similar. I t hought o f mysel f as a f i r eman - a
f i r eman who perfect l y fit t he descri pt i on by one o f
my colleagues: "In this office everyt hi ng is a crisis.
You onl y have t i me to put out t he big fires and spit
on t he little ones." By those standards t he Pi nt o
pr obl em was distinctly a little one.
It is also i mpor t ant to convey t he mut i ng of
emot i on i nvol ved i n t he Recall Coordi nat or' s j ob. I
r emember cont empl at i ng t he fact t hat my j ob
literally i nvol ved l i f e- and- deat h matters. I was some-
times responsible for fi ndi ng and fixing cars NOW,
because somebody' s life mi ght depend on it. I t ook i t
very seriously. Earl y i n t he j ob, I somet i mes woke up
at ni ght wonder i ng whet her I had covered all t he
bases. Had I left some u n k n o wn person at risk
because I had not t hought o f somet hi ng? That soon
faded, however, and o f necessity t he consi derat i on o f
people' s lives became a fairly r emoved, dispassionate
process. To do t he .job "well" t here was little r oom
for emot i on. Al l owi ng it t o surface was pot ent i al l y
paralyzing and pr event ed rational decisions about
whi c h cases t o r e c omme nd for recall. On mor al
grounds I kne w I coul d r e c omme nd most of t he
vehicles on my safety t racki ng list for recall (and risk
earni ng t he label of a "bl eedi ng heart"). On practical
grounds, I recogni zed t hat people i mpl i ci t l y accept
risks i n cars. We coul d not recall all cars wi t h
pot e nt i al probl ems and stay i n business. I l earned to
be responsive to those cases t hat suggested an i mmi -
nent , dangerous probl em.
I shoul d also note, t hat t he count r y was i n t he
mi dst o f its first, and worst, oil crisis at this di ne.
The effects of t he crisis had cast a pall over Ford and
t he rest o f t he aut omobi l e industry. Ford' s pr oduct
line, wi t h t he perhaps not abl e except i on o f t he Pi nt o
and Maveri ck small cars, was not wel l -sui t ed to
deal i ng wi t h t he crisis. Layoffs wer e i mmi ne nt for
many people. Recalling t he Pi nt o i n this cont ext
woul d have damaged one of t he few t r ump cards t he
company had (although, qui t e f r an~y, I do not
r e me mbe r overt l y t hi nki ng about t hat issue).
Pi nt o reports cont i nued to t ri ckl e in, but at such a
slow rate t hat t hey really di d not capt ure part i cul ar
at t ent i on relative to ot her, mor e pressing safety
problems. However, I later saw a cr umpl ed, bur ned
car at a Ford depot wher e alleged pr obl em c om-
ponent s and vehicles wer e del i vered for i nspect i on
and analysis (a place known as t he "Chamber o f
Horrors" by some o f t he peopl e who wor ked there).
The revul si on on seeing this i nci nerat ed hul k was
i mmedi at e and pr of ound. Soon afterwards, and
despite t he fact t hat t he file was ver y sparse, I r ecom-
me nde d t he Pi nt o case for pr el i mi nar y depar t ment -
level revi ew concer ni ng possible recall. Aft er t he
usual r ound o f discussion about criteria and j ust i f i -
cat i on for recall, everyone vot ed against r ecom-
mendi ng recall - i ncl udi ng me. It di d not fit t he
pat t er n o f recallable standards; t he evi dence was not
over whel mi ng t hat t he car was defective i n some
way, so t he case was actually fairly straightforward. It
was a good business decision, even i f people mi ght
be dying. ( We di d not t hen know about t he pr e-
pr oduct i on crash test data t hat suggested a hi gh rate
of t ank failures i n "normal " accidents (c, Perrow,
1984) or an abnor mal failure mode.)
Later, t he existence o f t he crash test data di d
become known wi t hi n Ford, whi c h suggested t hat
t he Pi nt o mi ght actually have a recallable probl em.
Thi s i nf or mat i on l ed to a reconsi derat i on of t he case
wi t hi n our office. The data, however, pr ompt ed a
compar i son o f t he Pinto' s survivability i n a rear end
acci dent wi t h t hat o f ot her compet i t ors' small cars.
These compari sons revealed t hat al t hough ma ny cars
i n this subcompact class suffered appalling def or ma-
t i on i n r dat i vel y l ow speed collisions, t he Pi nt o was
mer el y t he worst of a bad lot. Fur t her mor e, t he gap
bet ween t he Pi nt o and t he compet i t i on was not
dramat i c i n t erms of t he speed at whi c h fuel t ank
r upt ur e was l i kel y to occur. On t hat basis i t woul d
be difficult to j ust i fy t he recall o f cars t hat wer e
Pinto Fires and Personal Ethics 383
comparable with others on the market. In the face of
even more compelling evidence that people were
probably going to die in this car, I again included
myself in a group of decision makers who voted not
to recommend recall to the higher levels of the
Coda to the corporate case
Subsequent to my departure from Ford in 1975,
reports of Pinto fires escalated, attracting increasing
media attention, almost all of it critical of Ford.
Anderson and Wbitten (1976) revealed the internal
memos concerning the gas tank problem and ques-
tioned how the few dollars saved per car could be
justified when human lives were at stake. Shortly
thereafter, a scathing article by Dowie (1977) at-
tacked not only the Pinto's design, but also accused
Ford of gross negligence, stonewalling, and unethical
corporate conduct by alleging that Ford knowingly
sold "firetraps" after willfully calculating the cost of
lives against profits (see also Gatewood and Carrolt,
1983). Dowie's provocative quote speculating on
"how long the Ford Motor Company would con-
tinue to market lethal cars were Henry Ford II and
Lee Iacocca serving 20 year terms in Leavenworth
for consumer homicide" (1977, p. 32) was particu-
larly effective in focusing attention on the case.
Public sentiment edged toward labeling Ford as
socially deviant because management was seen as
knowing that the car was defecfve, choosing profit
over lives, resisting demands to fix the car, and
apparently showing no public remorse (S~adgert and
Farrell, 1980-8 I).
Shortly after Dowie's (1977) expose, NHTSA
initiated its own investigation. Then, early in 1978 a
jury awarded a Pinto burn victim $125 million in
punitive damages (later reduced to $6.6 million , a
j udgment upheld on an appeal that prompted the
judge to assert that "Ford's institutional mentality
was shown to be one of callous indifference to public
safety" (quoted in Culten et al., 1987, p. 164)). A siege
atmosphere emerged at Ford. Insiders characterized
the mounting media campaign as "hysterical" and "a
crusade against us" (personal communications). The
crisis deepened. In the summer of 1978 NHTSA
issued a formal determination that the Pinto was
defective. Ford then launched a reluctant recall of att
1971--1976 cars (those built for the 1977 model year
were equipped with a production ~'ix prompted by
the adoption of the FMVSS 301 gas tank standard).
Ford hoped that the issue would then recede, but
worse was yet to come.
The culmination of the case and the demise of the
Pinto itself began in Indiana on August 10, 1978,
when three teenage girls died in a fire triggered after
their 1973 Pinto was hit from behind by a van. A
grand jury took the unheard of step of indicting
Ford on charges of reckless homicide (Cullen et aL,
1987). Because of the precedent-setting possibilities
for all manufacturing industries, Ford assembled a
formidable legal team headed by Watergate prose-
cutor James Neal to defend itself at the trial The
trial was a media event; it was the first time that a
corporation was tried for atleged criminal behavior.
After a protracted, acrimonious courtroom battle
that included vivid clashes among the opposing
attorneys, surprise witnesses, etc., the jury uldmately
found in favor of Ford. Ford had dodged a buI1et in
the form of a consequential legal precedent, but
because of the negative publicity of the case and the
charges of corporate crime and ethical deviance, the
conduct of manufacturing businesses was altered,
probably forever. As a relatively minor footnote to
the case, Ford ceased production of the Pinto.
Coda to the personal case
In the intervening years since my early involvement
with the Pinto fire case, I have given repeated
consideration to my role in it. Although most of tile
ethically questionable actions that have been cited in
the press are associated with Ford's intentional
stonewalling after it was clear that the Pinto was
defective (see Cullen eta[., 1986; Dowie, 1977;
Gatewood and Carroll, 1983) - and thus postdate
my involvement with the case and the company - I
still nonetheless wonder about my own culpability.
Why" didn' t I see the gravity of the problem and its
ethical overtones? What happened to the value
system I carried with me into Ford? Should I have
acted differently, given what I knew then? The
experience with mysdf has sometimes not been
pleasant. Somehow, it seems I should have done
something different that might have made a differ-
384 De n n i s A . Gi oi a
As a consequence o f this l i ne of t hi nki ng and
feeling, some years ago I deci ded to const ruct a
"living case" out of my experi ence wi t h t he Pi nt o fire
pr obl em for use i n my MBA classes. The wr i t t en case
descri pt i on contains ma ny o f t he facts det ai l ed
above; t he analytical task o f t he class is to ask
appropri at e questions o f me as a figure i n t he case to
reveal t he cent ral issues involved. It is somewhat of a
t ryi ng experi ence to get t hr ough these classes. Aft er
get t i ng to know me for most of t he semester, and
t hen fi ndi ng out t hat I di d not vot e to r e c omme nd
recall, st udent s are oft en i ncredul ous, even angry at
me for apparent l y not havi ng lived what I have been
teaching. To be fair and even- handed here, ma ny
students under st and my actions i n t he cont ext o f t he
t i mes and t he attitudes preval ent t hen. Ot hers,
however, are ver y di sappoi nt ed t hat I appear to have
failed dur i ng a t i me o f trial. Consequent l y, I am
accused of bei ng a charl at an and ot herwi se vilified
by those who mai nt ai n t hat et hi cal and mor al pr i n-
ciples shoul d have prevai l ed i n this case no mat t er
what t he mi t i gat i ng circumstances. Those are t he
ones t hat hurt .
Those are also t he ones, however, t hat keep t he
case and its lessons alive i n my mi n d and cause me to
have an on- goi ng di al ogue wi t h mys el f about it. It is
fascinating to me t hat for several years after I first
conduct ed t he living case wi t h mysel f as t he focus, I
r emai ned convi nced t hat I had made t he "right"
deci si on i n not r e c omme ndi ng recall o f t he cars. In
l i ght of t he times and t he evi dence available, I
t hought I had pur sued a reasonable course of action.
Mor e recently, however, I have come to t hi nk t hat I
really shoul d have done ever yt hi ng I coul d t o get
those cars of f t he road.
In ret rospect I know t hat i n t he cont ext of t he
t i mes my actions wer e legal (they wer e all wel t
wi t hi n t he f r amewor k o f t he law); t hey probabl y also
wer e et hi cal accordi ng to most prevailing definitions
(they wer e i n accord wi t h accept ed professional
standards and codes of conduct); t he maj or concer n
for me is whe t he r t hey we r e moral (in t he sense o f
adher i ng to some hi gher standards of i nner con-
science and convi ct i on about t he "right" actions to
take). Thi s si mpl e t ypol ogy implies t hat I had passed
at least t wo hurdl es on a personal c ont i nuum t hat
ranged f r om mor e rigorous, but arguabl y less signifi-
cant criteria, to less rigorous, but mor e personally,
organizationally, and perhaps societally significant
x x ?
Legal Ethical Moral
It is t hat last cr i t er i on t hat remai ns t roubl esome.
Perhaps these reflections are all j us t personal
revisionist history. Aft er all, I am still st uck in. my
cognitive structures, as everyone is. I do not t hi nk
these concerns are all retrospective reconst ruct i on,
however. Anot her telling pi ece o f i nf or mat i on is this:
The ent i re t i me I was dealing wi t h t he Pi nt o fire
probl em, I owned a Pi nt o (!). I even sold it to my
sister. Wh a t does t hat say?
What happened here?
I, o f course, have some t hought s about my experi -
ence wi t h this damni ngl y visible case. At t he risk of
breaki ng some o f t he accepted rules of scholarly
analysis, rat her t han engagi ng i n t he usual compr e-
hensive, dense, ar ms- l engt h critique, I woul d instead
like to offer a r at her selective and subjective focus on
cert ai n characteristics of h u ma n i nf or mat i on pr o-
cessing rel evant to this ki nd o f situation, o f whi c h I
was my own unwi t t i ng victim. I make no cl ai m t hat
my analysis necessarily "explains mor e variance"
t han ot her possible explanations. I do t hi nk t hat this
selective vi ew is enl i ght eni ng i n t hat it offers an
alternative expl anat i on for some et hi cal l y quest i on-
able actions i n business.
The subjective stance adopt ed i n t he analysis is
i nt ent i onal also. Thi s case obviously stems f r om a
series of personal experiences, accounts, and i nt r o-
spections. The analytical style is i nt ended to be
consistent wi t h t he self-based case example; t her e-
fore, it appears to be less "formal" t han t he typical
obj ecf vi st mode of explanation. I suspect t hat my
chosen focus wi l l be fairly non- obvi ous to t he r eader
fami l i ar wi t h t he ethical l i t erat ure (as i t typically
is to t he ethical actor). Al t hough this analysis mi ght
be j udge d as somewhat self-serving, I nonet hel ess
believe t hat it provides an i nformat i ve expl anat i on
for some o f t he et hi cal foibles we see enact ed ar ound
Pinto Fires and Personal Ethics 385
To me, there are two major issues to address.
First, how could my value system apparently have
flip-flopped in the relatively short space of 1-2
years? Secondly, how could I have failed to take
action on a retrospectively obvious safety problem
when I was in. the perfect position to do so? To
begin, I would like to consider several possible
explanations for my thoughts and actions (or lack
(hereof) during the early stages of the Pinto fire case.
One explanation is that I was simply revealed as a
phony when the chips were down; that my previous
values were not strongly inculcated; that I was all
bluster, not particularly ethical, and as a result acted
expediently when confronted with a reality test of
those values. In other words, I turned traitor to my
own expressed values. Another explanation is that I
was simply iwfimidated; in the face of strong pres-
sure to heal to company preferences, I folded - put
ethical concerns aside, or at least traded them for a
monumental guilt trip and did what anybody would
do to keep a good job. A third explanation is that I
was following a strictly utilitarian set of decision
criteria (Valasquez et aI., 1983) and, predictably
enough, opted for a personal form of Ford's own
cost-benefit analysis, with similar disappointing re-
suits. Another explanation might suggest that the
interaction of my stage of moral development
(Kohlberg, 1969) and the culture and decision
environment at Ford led me to think about and act
upon an ethical dilemma in a fashion that reflected a
lower level of actual moral development than i
espoused for myself (Trevino, t986 and this issue).
Yet another explanation is that t was co-opted;
rather than working from the inside to change a
lumbering system as I had intended, the tables were
turned and the system beat me at my own game.
More charitably, perhaps, it is possible that I simply
was a good person making bad ethical choices
because of the corporate milieu (Gellerman, 1986).
I doubt tha~ this list is exhaustive. I am quite sure
that cynics could match my own MBA students'
labels, which in the worst case include phrases like
"moral failure" and "doubly reprehensible because
you were in a position to make a difference." I
believe, however, on the basis of a number of years
of work on social cognition in organizations that a
viable explanation is one that is not quite so melo-
dramatic. It is an explanation that rests on a recogni-
tion that even the best-intentioned organization
members organize information into cognitive struc-
tures or schemas that serve as (fallible) mental
templates for handling incoming information and as
guides for acting upon it. Of the ma W schemas that
have been hypothesized to exist, the one that is most
relevant to my experience at Ford is the notion of a
script (Abelson, 1976, I98I).
My central thesis is this: My own sckematized
(scripted) knowledge influenced me to perceive recall issues
in terms of the prevailing decision environment and to
unconsciously overlook key~atures tithe Pinto case, mainly
because they did not f i t an existing script. Altho,gh the
outcomes of the case carry retrospectively obvious ethical
overtones, the schemas driving my perceptions and actions
precluded consideration of the issues in ethical terms because
the scripts did not include ethical dimensions.
Script schemas
A schema is a cognitive framework that people use to
impose structure upon information, situations, and
expectations to facilitate understanding (Gioia and
Poole, 1984; Taylor and Crocker, 1981). Schemas
derive from consideration of prior experiei~-ce or
vicarious learning that results in the formation of
"organized" knowledge - knowledge that, once
formed, precludes the necessity for further active
cognition. As a consequence, such structured knowl-
edge allows virtually effortless interpretation of
information and events (c, Canter and Mischel,
1979). A script is a specialized type of schema that
retains knowledge of actions appropriate for specific
situations and contexts (Abelson, 1976, 1981). One of
the most important characteristics of scripts !is that
they simultaneously provide a cognitive framework
for understanding information and events as we.ll as a
guide to appropriate behavior to deal with the situa-
don faced. They thus seree as linkages between
cognition and action (Gioia and Manz, 1985).
The structuring of knowledge in scripted fi~rm is
a fundamental human information processing te>_d-
ency that in malay ways results in a relatively closed
cognitive system that influences both perception and
action. Scripts, like all schemas, operate on the basis
of prototypes, which are abstract representations that
contain the main features or characteristics; of a
386 Denni s A. Gi oi a
gi ven knowl edge category (e.g., "safety problems").
Protoscripts (Gioia and Poole, 1984) s e r v e as t em-
plates against whi ch i ncomi ng i nf or mat i on can be
assessed. A pat t ern i n cur r ent i nf or mat i on t hat
general l y mat ches t he t empl at e associated wi t h a
given script signals t hat active t hought and analysis is
not required. Unde r these condi t i ons t he ent i re
existing script can be called fort h and enact ed
aut omat i cal l y and unconsciously, usually wi t hout
adj ust ment for subtle differences i n i nf or mat i on
patterns t hat mi ght be i mport ant .
Gi ven t he compl exi t y o f t he organizational world,
i t is obvious t hat t he schemat i zi ng or scripting o f
knowl edge i mpl i es a great i nf or mat i on processing
advantage - a deci si on maker need not actively
t hi nk about each new present at i on o f i nformat i on,
situations, or problems; t he mode o f handl i ng such
probl ems has already been wor ked out i n advance
and r emanded to a wor ki ng stock of knowl edge hel d
i n i ndi vi dual (or organizational) memor y. Scripted
knowl edge saves a significant amount o f ment al
work, a savings t hat i n fact prevents t he cogni t i ve
paralysis t hat woul d inevitably come f r om t ryi ng to
treat each specific instance o f a class o f probl ems as
a uni que case t hat requires cont empl at i on. Scripted
decision maki ng is t hus efficient decision maki ng
but not necessarily good decision maki ng (Gioia and
Poole, 1984).
Of course, every advantage comes wi t h its own set
of bui l t - i n disadvantages. Ther e is a price to pay for
scripted knowl edge. On t he one hand, existing
scripts lead peopl e to selectively perceive i nf or ma-
t i on t hat is consistent wi t h a script and thus to
i gnor e anomal ous i nformat i on. Conversely, i f t here
is missing i nformat i on, t he gaps i n knowl edge are
filled wi t h expected features supplied by t he script
(Bower et al., 1979; Graesser et al., 1980). In some
cases, a pat t ern t hat mat ches an existing script,
except for some key differences, can be "tagged" as a
distinctive case (Graesser et al., 1979) and thus be
made mor e memorabl e. In t he worst case scenario,
however, a situation t hat does not fit t he characteris-
tics o f t he scripted perspective for handl i ng pr obl em
cases of t en is si mpl y not noticed. Scripts thus offer a
viable expl anat i on for why experi enced decision
makers (perhaps especially experi enced deci si on ma k-
ers) t end to overl ook what others woul d construe as
obvious factors i n maki ng a decision.
Gi ven t he relatively rare o c c u r r e n c e o f t rul y novel
i nformat i on, t he nat ure o f script processing implies
that it is a default mode o f organizational cognition.
That is, instead o f spendi ng t he pr edomi nance o f
t hei r ment al energy t hi nki ng i n some active fashion,
decision makers mi ght bet t er be characterized as
typically not t hi nki ng, i.e., dealing wi t h i nf or mat i on
i n a mode t hat is akin to "cruising on aut omat i c
pilot" (cf., Gioia, 1986). The scripted vi ew casts
decision makers as needi ng some sort of pr od i n t he
f or m o f novel or unexpect ed i nf or mat i on to ki ck
t hem i nt o a t hi nki ng mode - a prod that oft en does
not come because o f the weal t h o f similar data t hat
t hey must process. Therefore, instead o f focusing
what peopl e pay at t ent i on to, i t mi ght be mor e
enl i ght eni ng to focus on what t hey do not pay
at t ent i on to.
Pinto problem perception and scripts
It is illustrative to consider my situation i n handl i ng
t he early stages of t he Pi nt o fire case i n l i ght of script
theory. Wh e n I was deal i ng wi t h t he first t ri ckl i ng-
i n of" field reports t hat mi ght have suggested a
significant pr obl em wi t h t he Pinto, t he reports wer e
essentially similar to many others t hat I was dealing
wi t h (and dismissing) all t he time. The sort o f i nfor-
mat i on t hey contained, whi ch di d not convey en-
ough prototypical features to capture my attention,
never got past my screening script. I had seen this
type of i nf or mat i on pat t ern before (hundreds o f
times!); I was maki ng this ki nd of deci si on aut omat i -
cally every day. I had trained mysel f to respond to
prototypical cues, and these di dn' t fit t he relevant
prot ot ype for crisis cases. (Yes, t he Pi nt o reports fit a
prot ot ype - but i t was a prot ot ype for "normal
accidents" t hat di d not deviate significantly f r om
expected problems). The frequency of t he reports
relative to other, mor e serious probl ems (i.e., those
t hat displayed mor e characteristic features of safety
problems) also di d not pass my scripted criteria for
singling out t he Pi nt o case. Consequent l y, I l ooked
ri ght past t hem.
Over l ooki ng uncharacteristic cues also was exac-
erbated by t he nat ure o f t he j ob. The over whel mi ng
i nf or mat i on overl oad t hat characterized t he role as
wel l as its hect i c pace actually forced a greater
reliance on scripted responses. It was impossible to
handl e t he job requi rement s wi t hout relying on some
Pinto Fires and Personal Ethics 387
sort o f aut omat i c way o f assessing whe t he r a case
deserved active at t ent i on. Ther e was so mu c h to do
and so mu c h i nf or mat i on to at t end to t hat t he onl y
way to deal wi t h it was by means of schemat i c
processing. In fact, t he one anomal y i n t he case t hat
mi ght have cued me to gravity of t he pr obl em (the
field r epor t accompani ed by graphi c phot ographs)
still di d not di st i ngui sh t he pr obl em as one t hat was
distinctive enough to snap me out o f my standard
response mode and tag i t as a failure t hat deserved
closer moni t or i ng.
Even t he presence of an emot i onal component
t hat mi ght have shor t - ci r cui t ed standard script pr o-
cessing instead became part of t he script itself.
Mont hs o f squel chi ng t he di st urbi ng emot i ons asso-
ciated wi t h serious safety probl ems soon made
muf f l ed emot i ons a standard (and not ver y salient)
c ompone nt o f t he script for handl i ng any safety
probl em. Thi s observation, t hat emot i on was mut e d
by experience, and t herefore de- emphasi zed i n t he
script, differs f r om Fiske's (1982) wi del y accepted
posi t i on t hat emot i on is tied to t he top o f a schema
(i.e., is t he most salient and i ni t i al l y-t apped aspect of
schemat i c processing). On t he basis o f my experi -
en.ce, I woul d argue t hat for organi zat i on member s
t rai ned to cont rol emot i ons to per f or m t he j ob rote
(cf., Pitre, 1990), emot i on is ei t her not a part o f t he
i nt ernal i zed script, or at best becomes a di f f i cul t - t o-
access part of any script for j ob performance.
The one i nst ance o f emot i on penet r at i ng t he
operat i ng script was t he revul si on t hat swept over
me at t he sight o f t he bur ned vehi cl e at t he r et ur n
depot. Tha t event was so st rong t hat it pr ompt ed me
to put t he case up for preliminary- consi derat i on (in
t heoret i cal terms, it pr ompt ed me cogni t i vel y to
"tag" t he Pi nt o case as a pot ent i al l y distinctive one). I
soon "came to my senses," however, wh e n rational
consi derat i on of t he pr obl em characteristics sug-
gested t hat t hey di d not meet t he scripted criteria
t hat wer e consensually shared among member s o f
t he Field Recall Office. At t he pr el i mi nar y revi ew
ot her member s o f t he deci si on team, enact i ng t hei r
own scripts i n t he absence o f my emot i onal experi -
ence, wonder ed why I had even br ought t he case up.
To me this meet i ng demonst r at ed t hat even wh e n
cont rol l ed analytic i nf or mat i on processing occurred,
i t was nonet hel ess based on pri or schemat i zat i on o f
i nformat i on. In ot her words, even wh e n i nf or mat i on
processing was not aut omat i cal l y executed, i t still
depended upon schemas (cf., Gioia, 1986). As a result
o f t he social const r uct i on o f t he situation, I ended up
agreei ng wi t h my colleagues and vot i ng not to recall.
The r emai ni ng maj or issue to be deal t wi t h, o f
course, concerns t he apparent shift i n my values. In a
per i od of less t han t wo years I appeared to change
my stripes and adopt t he cul t ural values o f t he
organization. Ho w di d t hat apparent shift occur?
Again, scripts are relevant. I woul d argue t hat my
pr e- For d values for changi ng corporat e &ne r i c a
wer e bona fide. I had i nt ernal i zed values for doi ng
what was ri ght as I t hen under st ood "righmess" i n
grand terms. They" key is, however, t hat I had not
i nt ernal i zed a script for enact i ng those values i n any
specific cont ext outside my- l i mi t ed experience. The
insider' s vi ew at Ford, o f course, provi ded me wi t h a
specific and i mmedi at e cont ext for devel opi ng such
a script. Scripts are f or med f r om salient experi ence
and t here was no mor e salient experience i n my
relatively young life t han j oi ni ng a maj or corpora-
t i on and movi ng qui ckl y i nt o a position o f clear and
present responsibility. The strongest possible par am-
eters for script f or mat i on wer e all there, not onl y
because o f t he j ob rol e specifications, but also f r om
t he corporat e cul t ure. Organi zat i onal cul t ure, i n one
very power f ul sense, amount s to a col l ect i on o f
scripts wr i t large, Di d I sell out? No. We r e my
cognitive st ruct ures altered by salient experience?
Wi t h o u t question. Scripts for under st andi ng and
act i on wer e f or med and r ef or med i n a relatively
short t i me i n a way t hat not onl y al t ered percept i ons
o f issues but also t he likely" actions associated wi t h
those al t ered perceptions.
I mi ght charact eri ze t he differing cognitive struc---
tures as "outsider" versus "insider" scripts. I vi ew
t he m also as "idealist" versus "realist" scripts. I mi ght
f ur t her not e t hat t he out si der/ i deal i st script was one
t hat was mor e i ndi vi dual l y-based t han t he in.sider/
realist script, whi c h was mor e collective and subject
to t he i nfl uence of t he corporat e mi l i eu and culture.
Personal i dent i t y as capt ured i n t he revised script
became mu c h mor e corporat e t han individual. Given
t hat scripts are socially const ruct ed and r econ-
st ruct ed cognitive structures, it is underst andabl e
t hat t hei r cont ent and process woul d be mu c h mor e
responsive to t he corporat e cul t ure, because of its
saliency and i mmedi acy.
The recall coordi nat or' s j ob was serious business.
The scripts associated wi t h i t i nf l uenced me :much
388 De n n i s A . Gi oi a
mor e t han I i nf l uenced it. Before I went to Ford I
woul d have argued st rongl y t hat Ford had an ethical
obl i gat i on to recall. After I left Ford I now argue and
t each t hat Ford had an ethical obl i gat i on to recall.
But , wh i l e I was there, I percei ved no st rong obligation
to recall and I r e me mbe r no strong ethical overtones
to t he case whatsoever. It was a very st rai ght forward
decision, dr i ven by domi na nt scripts for t he t i me,
place, and context.
Whi ther ethics and scripts?
Most model s o f ethical deci si on maki ng i n organi za-
tions i mpl i ci t l y assume t hat peopl e recogni ze and
t hi nk about a mor al or et hi cal di l emma wh e n t hey
are conf r ont ed wi t h one (cf., Kohl berg, 1969 and
Trevi no' s revi ew i n this issue). I call this seemi ngl y
f undament al assumpt i on i nt o question. The unex-
pl or ed ethical issue for me is t he arguabl y preval ent
case whe r e organizational representatives are not
aware t hat t hey are deal i ng wi t h a pr obl em t hat
mi ght have ethical overtones. I f t he case involves a
familiar class o f probl ems or issues, it is l i kel y t o be
handl ed via existing cognitive structures or scripts -
scripts t hat typically i ncl ude no ethical component i n t hei r
cognitive content.
Al t hough we mi ght hope t hat peopl e i n charge of
i mpor t ant decisions like vehi cl e safety recalls mi ght
engage i n active, logical analysis and consi der t he
subtleties i n t he ma ny di fferent situations t hey face,
t he cont ext of t he decisions and t hei r necessary
rel i ance on schemat i c processing tends to pr ecl ude
such consi derat i on (cf., Gioia, 1989). Account i ng for
t he subtleties o f ethical consi der at i on i n wor k situa-
tions t hat are typically handl ed by schema-based
processing is very di ffi cul t i ndeed. Scripts are bui l t
out o f situations t hat are nor mal , not those t hat are
abnormal , i l l -st ruct ured, or unusual ( whi ch of t en
can charact eri ze ethical domains). The ambi gui t i es
associated wi t h most ethical di l emmas i mpl y t hat
such situations demand a "cust om" decision, whi c h
means t hat t he i ncl usi on of an. ethical di mens i on as a
c ompone nt o f an evolving script is not easy to
Ho w mi ght ethical considerations be i nt ernal i zed
as part of t he script for under st andi ng and action? It
is easier to say what wi l l not be likely to wor k t han
wha t will. Clearly, mer e ment i on of ethics i n pol i cy
or t rai ni ng manual s wi l l not do t he j ob. Even ex-
hort at i ons to be concer ned wi t h ethics i n decision
maki ng are sel dom likely to mi grat e i nt o t he script.
Just as clearly, codes of ethics typically wi l l not work.
They are t oo oft en cast at a level of general i t y t hat
can not be associated wi t h any specific script. Fur -
t her mor e, for all practical purposes, codes of ethics
oft en are stated i n a way t hat makes t he m "cont ext -
free," whi ch makes t he m vi rt ual l y impossible to
associate wi t h active scripts, whi c h always are con-
t ext -bound.
Tactics for script devel opment t hat have mor e
pot ent i al involve l earni ng or t rai ni ng t hat con-
centrates on exposure to i nf or mat i on or model s t hat
explicitly display a focus on ethical considerations.
Thi s i mpl i es t hat ethics be i ncl uded i n j ob descri p-
tions, management devel opment training, me nt or -
ing, etc. Tactics for script revision i nvol ve l earni ng or
t rai ni ng t hat concent r at e on "script-breaking" exam-
pies. Or gani zat i on member s mus t be exposed ei t her
t o vicarious or personal experiences t hat i nt er r upt
tacit knowl edge o f "appropriate" act i on so t hat script
revision can be initiated. Tr ai ni ng scenarios, and
especially role playing, t hat por t r ay expected se-
quences t hat are t hen i nt er r upt ed to call explicit
at t ent i on to ethical issues can be tagged by t he
percei ver as requi ri ng attention. This tactic amount s
to installing a decision node i n t he revised scripts
t hat tells t he act or " Now t hi nk" (Abelson, 1981).
Onl y by means of similar scri pt -breaki ng strategies
can existing cognitive structures be modi f i ed to
accommodat e t he necessary cycles of aut omat i c and
cont r ol l ed processing (cf., Louis and Sutton, 1991).
The upshot o f t he scripted vi ew o f organizational
under st andi ng and behavi or is bot h an encour age-
me nt and an i ndi ct ment o f peopl e facing situations
laced wi t h ethical overtones. It is encour agi ng
because i t suggests t hat organizational decision
makers are not necessarily l acki ng i n ethical st and-
ards; t hey are si mpl y fallible i nf or mat i on processors
who fail t o not i ce t he ethical i mpl i cat i ons o f a usual
way o f handl i ng issues. It is an i ndi ct ment because
ethical di mensi ons are not usually a cent ral feature
of t he cogni t i ve structures t hat drive deci si on ma k -
ing. Obviously, t hey shoul d be, but it wi l l take
substantial concent r at i on on t he ethical di mensi on
of t he corporat e cul t ure, as wel l as overt attempts to
emphasi ze ethics i n educat i on, training, and decision
maki ng before typical organizational scripts are
Pi nt o Fi res and Personal Et hi cs 389
l i kel y t o be mo d i f i e d t o i nc l ude t he cr uci al et hi cal
c o mp o n e n t .
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Pennsylvania State University~ ,
Smeal College o f Business Admi ni st rat i on,
University Park, P A 16802,
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