Report #6, Q1 2016

ACD Gies Ethics Project

Report #6, Q1 2016

David W. Chambers

This report summarizes the work done during the first three months of 2016.  Another empirical study, on moral priming, has been completed and documented.  Work has begun on two new projects: focus groups with dentists and patients and the survey of dental ethics educators.

Moral Priming

The standard assumption is that one’s moral habits are in place early in life, but ethics education, if it is of very high quality and persisted in over time, can bend these habits generally and somewhat permanently.  This has proved to be very hard work.  Circumstances in dentists’ practice lives seem to undermine application of good theory.  Another approach would be to adjust the circumstances to favor hoped for behavior.  Research in other fields shows we can prime others to bring forth the best of their moral character.  A study was conducted with a group of dentists showing that the same practitioners respond differently to standardized moral issues depending on whether they respond imagining themselves to be leaders in the profession or typical practitioners.  Moral priming is an easy, if rather short-lived, way to promote higher levels of professionalism.  The effect also explains why the path to high ethics always seems so much clearer when we attend meetings to discuss matters than when we get home and start doing dentistry.

A formal journal article describing this research will appear in the winter issue of the 2016 Journal of the American College of Dentists.  A draft of the paper can be seen at

New Projects

A center-piece of the ACD Gies Ethics Project is listening to practitioners and patients.  Focus groups of about eight to twelve similar individuals have traditionally been used in market research to understand how matters stand in the eyes of important others.  Such groups can be used to help frame the important issues or to “test drive” potential solutions.  We will only be involved with the first type.  To date, I have listened to one group of young leaders in the profession in Ohio, two groups of practitioners in Maryland, and two groups of patients in San Francisco.  Coming up next are patients in North Carolina, senior dental leadership in California, and dentists and patients in Oklahoma.

In 1998 the accreditation standards for US dental schools were changed to require competency in ethics of all graduates.  That stimulated attention to ethics curricula and support materials.  It is generally thought that there has been wide variation in how these programs have been implements from school to school.  In an effort to find out, a survey will be conducted of dental ethics educators to see what they do, what they think the addressable issues are, and what resources they stand in need of.


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