What the Overview Effect Shows About Global Economic Ethics

Rutherford Card. Johnson, PhD, FPRS

Adapted from:
Rutherford Card. Johnson. “The Psychology of the Overview Effect and Global Economic Ethics.”
Psychology. Vol. 9. No. 7. July 2018.


From the Enron scandal to the moral atrophy that spurred on the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the topic of ethics in the economy certainly seems to be at the forefront of the news in recent times. Ethical concerns in commerce, however, are nothing new. Medieval Church authorities, for example, spoke of the need for moral behaviour in the economy and placed restrictions on practices such as usury. That market forces in a free economy would be hindered from reaching efficient outcomes due to malfeasance has been a constant concern undoubtedly since the first trade between humans took place.

Systemic moral failure, or ethical breakdown, in society can contribute to market failure, such as was seen in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. A systematic ethical breakdown is often the result not only of direct unethical behaviour, but also of good people letting bad things happen, such as objectives that, by their very nature encourage negative or harmful behaviour, or situations that incentivize turning a blind eye to immoral behaviour, or ignoring such behaviour because of personal distance from the actual wrongdoers.

New solutions are needed to old problems. Enter the Overview Effect.

The Overview Effect, first conceptualized in 1987 by Frank White and recently popularized in National Geographic’s new television series, One Strange Rock, is a cognitive shift that results, to put it in rather simple terms, from seeing the earth from space. As such, it is only experienced in its pure form by astronauts/cosmonauts. The result of the effect is a change in awareness pertaining to the earth as a whole system and the interconnectivity of humanity across national and cultural borders. As such, it has also become an influential concept in the field of sustainability, which promotes, in an ecological sense, humans contributing to indefinite continuation of environmental diversity and productivity. In an economic sense, sustainability likewise encourages firms to contribute to continued environmental diversity and productivity, in addition to maintaining production and financial practices that “[meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[1]

Leaders can be incentivized through financial means and regulations to do the right thing, but it is a far more stable system if those leaders internalize the concept. Then it becomes inherently “the right thing to do” rather than merely a means to profit. That is not to say, of course, that businesses should not reasonably seek profit or that economies should not seek growth. Rather, businesses and the economy should not seek profit now or growth now without considering the effects of those profit/growth-seeking actions on both the present and the future – both on themselves and on others.

Furthermore, the world today is getting smaller. In the economy, national borders are all but vanishing – echoing the experience of astronauts who experience the Overview Effect. The internet has also changed the landscape of commerce, facilitating new contact between different parts of the world on a much larger scale than was possible before. In contrast to the past, in which commerce was simply an extension of national power, commerce has transformed into a world of multinational collaboration with common goals. Business interests and national interests may diverge. That is, of course, the subject of some political debate.

The Overview Effect, in that it represents a cognitive shift in awareness, is a means by which leaders in industry, the financial sector, and the economy as a whole can internalize the interconnectedness of humanity. Astronauts who experience the effect refer to the earth in terms such as “a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void,” and remark that national boundaries vanish, conflicts that cause divisions are not visible, and the concept of unity of all mankind seems possible. How that experience – any experience, really – is interpreted is very individual, influenced by one’s own pre-existing beliefs and culture (Yaden, McCall, and Ellens, 2015). The religious-oriented, for example, might interpret the experience in a religious way, likely deepening their faith (Gaither and Cavazos-Gaither, 2003). Secularists, however, although they are unlikely to explain the experience in religious terms (unless they experience some form of Pauline-esque religious awakening), nevertheless may use spiritual-like language in describing the experience (Yaden et al., 2016). National-cultural differences can also play a role, resulting in widely different interpretations between overview effect experiencers from different countries and cultures (Peng and Zhao, 2015). One potential monkey wrench in the system, then, is that an experience intended to find common ground and can indeed be a shared experience can still lead to arguments in application back on earth. The space-traveler community at present is rather small, but as it grows, as it would if space travel becomes as common as travel by airplane, then problems of differences between cultures and individuals in the interpretation and application of the shared experience may result. For example, among pilots today, there may still be a bit of camaraderie, but one can hardly say there is the same sense of brotherhood amongst air travelers. Perhaps there was more a feeling of brotherhood among passengers when air travel was still relatively rare and people even put on their “Sunday best” to fly. This problem, though, should not be viewed so much as a problem but as a challenge and opportunity for individual growth. For growth to occur, however, usually the individual must want to grow. The teacher will teach when the students are ready to learn. Fortunately experiences that are both difficult and enjoyable can spur psychological growth on their own (Myasnikov and Zamaletdinov, 1996; Suedfeld, 2005; Cornum, Matthews, and Seligman, 2011; Roepke, 2013, 2015).

How can the Overview Effect and its principles be applied to the economy in a way that not only raises meaningful awareness, but results in driven, purpose-filled action when the Overview Effect appears to be the exclusive property of space travelers? The relatively rare nature of space travel at present brings forward a distinct practical problem – the Overview Effect in its pure form can only be experienced through direct space travel. Fortunately there are ways that the Overview Effect can still benefit those who have not travelled to space. One solution that is just beginning is commercial space travel. However, that is still very much in its infancy, and it remains to be seen whether it will “take off” as an industry. At present, it is very expensive, which significantly limits the pool of potential space passengers.

Another option is a virtual experience, by which individuals could experience some of the sensory and visual aspects of space travel without the expense of actual space travel. The digital technology already permits virtual reality simulations, so this is becoming a distinct and affordable possibility. In terms of the business world, should business school students have such an experience as a standard part of their programme? What about in economics and finance programmes? That surely would be a subject of some debate. However, given the array of business consultant services out there now that provide coaching on various forms of soft skills, there could be potential for something similar offering virtual Overview Effect experiences geared towards improving awareness in corporate employees in a way that spurs positive action.

Yet another option is what is termed an “overview analogue” experience. An overview analogue does not involve space travel, but does involve some form of usually difficult, yet enjoyable activity that brings the individual to a new perspective and causes a similar cognitive shift. Such experiences, from mountain climbing to skydiving and many more, are far more widely experienced and available. However, the risk aspect of many activities that lead to an overview analogue experience are such that they still account for a relatively small segment of the population, even in the business world or high finance where one might find driven people who are not so risk-averse and are willing to take calculated risks for a specific purpose.

Another remaining option is to learn from the experiences of others. It is impossible to know what Columbus and his men experienced directly without having been there, but there is still much to learn vicariously through detailed study of his experiences. So, rather than direct experiential learning, there is academic study of the experiences of others. Internalizing that material can be deepened through processes such as reflective journaling (Lew and Schmidt, 2011). Experiential learning can take place through observation. However, there must be intrinsic motivation, which is true even in the case of learning through doing or learning through emotional experience. There must also be a reflective and analytical component to the process to extend the learning experience to a wider context. It should also be open-ended and not blocked in time, i.e., it should be considered an ongoing process rather than something boxed into a rigid class period (Hansen, 2000). The Overview Effect, whether experienced through doing (space travel) or through observation (learning from the space travel of others), similarly is not something that is likely to produce results if thought of in terms of instant gratification. Rather, to benefit the most from it, learners ought to seek an experiential learning process, even if it is one based on observation of others. It requires a dissection of the material in an ongoing and analytical way with a goal of internalizing what is learning for the purpose of applying it to a larger context. Of course, to do that requires intrinsic motivation. Business executives sent to a day conference on the Overview Effect with the only motivation being to “check a box” or fulfill a continuing education requirement are not likely to experience a cognitive shift. Then again, surprises can happen.

If phenomena like lapses of integrity can cause pandemic negative ethical shifts in the business world and in the economy, then unless humanity is to believe that the only direction it can go is down, there must be a means (and probably more than one) by which a similar widespread effect can take place, but in a positive direction. There are plenty of examples of major world events happening because of mob mentality. The horrors of the French Revolution comprise one dramatic example. The mob is fickle and can cause unpredictable and unsustainable changes that may do more harm than good. Change can be good or bad. Sometimes popular demand can be useful, such as in spurring technological change that improves health quality rather than harming it. More sustainable, positive (i.e., good) change comes from within. When cognitive shifts are widespread, society as a whole moves in a new direction. That does not mean that such a change is permanent, but only that it is more considered, better analyzed, and hence more stable.

The Overview Effect sees the business world and indeed the entire economy as one. Yes, there are competing businesses, competing nations, competing banks, and competing interests. However, rather than multiple entities all following independent decision strategies, the Overview Effect would suggest that there should be some overlap and some commonality in decision strategy regarding the common good. The ability of others to provide for themselves, for example, should not be seen as a threat to one’s own ability to provide for one’s self. To work, though, it must be a viewpoint held by both sides. Otherwise simple game theory points to overwhelming incentives that lead to a sub-optimal outcome.

The Overview Effect, in that it represents a cognitive shift, has the potential to be a bridge that can affect lasting, positive improvement in the ethnical climate of the global economy. It does, however, require effort in learning – particularly given the current limitations of space travel. But, as discussed, there are other ways to learn from it. Internal motivation is essential. Were the principles of the Overview Effect to be taught in business, finance, and economics programmes at even the undergraduate level, it could be a means to give future business leaders, financiers, and economists the tools they need to cultivate and maintain a climate of ethics and integrity in the global economy – as well as the local and national economies. Simple transactional strategy is typically against an equilibrium outcome that involves goals outside profit-making, unless an outside force such as regulation or market power demands it. A widespread cognitive shift is the solution most likely to be effective in overcoming the strategic trap.

The promotion of ethical practices in business and the economy is something that requires constant effort. History has shown that it is not a contemporary problem. The principles of the Overview Effect are such that they provide a different perspective, thereby potentially stimulating new thought processes that may help to internalize important concepts of ethics and responsibility. Moreover, the Overview Effect is something that is inherently individual in experience, but broad and even potentially global in its effect. It helps to move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to meaningful cognitive change and towards something that treats the individual as an individual. Both the individual and the community are respected and given importance, thereby helping to avoid pendulum swings of extremism. Above all, the goal of promoting a stable, sustainable ethical environment in the global economy requires ongoing and widespread effort.


Works Cited and Further Reading

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Cornum, R., M. D. Matthews; and M.E. Seligman. “Comprehensive soldier fitness: Building resilience in a challenging institutional context.” American Psychologist. Vol. 66. No. 4. 2011.

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Grebey, James. “Seeing Earth from Space Profoundly Changes People. Can You Do That on TV? National Geographic’s ‘One Strange Rock’ documentary series wants to capture the Overview Effect.” Inverse.20 March 2018.

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Hawtrey, Kim; and Rutherford Johnson. “On Moral Atrophy and the Global Financial Crisis.” Journal of Religion and Business Ethics.Vol. 1. Iss. 2. 2010.

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[1]Definition of the World Council for Economic Development.