Values can cause trouble

Strong personal values are good. Right? Yes …  and they can also cause trouble.

Here’s a scenario: Respected young doctor switches two research study participants so a person she knows is in the treatment group, rather than the control group. She wants to help this person and thinks there is no harm to the study as long as no one knows about the change except her.

When colleague learns about the switch and reports it,  the doctor faces the possibility of losing her job and her husband, the senior doctor in charge of the study. (He thinks she’s crazy and  irresponsible for doing this.)

This is  fictional drama that illustrates a real challenge. It  unfolded on this season’s (2011) final episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The doctor was Meredith Grey helping Adele, wife of the Chief of Surgery, get an experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s. [Small disclaimer: I happened upon this episode but did not watch all of the possibly relevant preceding episodes.]

What was she (fictionally) thinking?  Possibly … OH, NO … Adele is in the control group, she won’t be treated! I’m not supposed to know this. What can I do? She needs treatment – a chance for a normal life, not gradual disintegration of her brain. (Visualized in detail since Meredith’s mother had Alzheimer’s.) I can fix this. After all, it was random. She could have been assigned to the treatment group. It’s OK. Nobody will know.

The immediate and personal won out over the longer term goal.

A unique combination of circumstances perhaps. How might it have been different if Meredith knew it was virtually certain that someone would find out about the switch? Or if it was impossible for her to know which participants were in the treatment or control group, or their names or circumstances?

We all make decisions every day shaped by our past experiences, our values and our emotions, with a dash of information and logic mixed in. It’s human, it’s normal. When the outcomes are critical, we can help ourselves and others to make good choices.

It’s a matter of understanding the pitfalls – knowing the risks – and developing the personal or organizational guidance systems to keep us on track.

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