Dennis Dunivan

Daniels is featuring researchers who conduct meaningful research that impacts their field and the wider community. Learn more about their work in Q&As with the Daniels Research team and email them to nominate yourself or a colleague for a future Q&A. This interview features a student from the Daniels Executive PhD program.

Dennis Dunivan received his Executive PhD from the Daniels College of Business in June 2023, completing his dissertation on “Moral Leadership Development through Experiential Learning.” He received his Executive MBA with a focus on organizational development from the University of Denver, and a BS in agricultural journalism from the University of Missouri. Dennis’ research investigates moral psychology, experiential learning, business ethics and leadership development. He has held leadership and consulting positions in the agriculture, aerospace, action sports and animal health industries. Dennis currently teaches Ethics, Leadership, and Organizational Behavior for the Outdoor MBA program at Western Colorado University.

What do you study and why?

I study how people make moral decisions, specifically looking at the influences of these decisions. There are competing theories: One is Kohlberg’s moral reasoning, which suggests we develop our morality through education and experiences; the other is Haight’s moral foundations theory, which posits that we are born with innate tendencies towards certain moral values like fairness, loyalty and caring for others. I’m interested in how these moral decisions drive business actions in areas like environmental sustainability and worker treatment. My goal is to understand how experiences shape moral decision-making and to then develop educational programs to enhance leadership in business.

How does this work interact with the business world?

The foundation of my research is in moral psychology to better understand the possible motivators of pre-social behavior. Through these learnings, I’m specifically interested in creating experiential learning opportunities for students, which fits within the area of applied psychology. Specifically, for the business world, we’re looking at management practices, principles of moral leadership, organizational behavior and team-building. One might say my work is focused on the psychology of business.

What’s an example of a moral decision that organizational leadership might need to make?

Let’s say a firm is deciding whether or not they want to open up shop in a country where the labor practices may be in question. Maybe there are 16-year-old kids that would be working in production. In our society, it would be a no-brainer that you wouldn’t do that. But in a different society, it might be common practice. A decision like this could follow different ethical frameworks, such as deontology (rule-based) or consequentialism (outcome-based). With the former, you’d probably say, no, as a U.S.-based company, we are not going to hire these kids. With the latter, which is more utilitarian, you might say that because 16-year-olds are actually considered adults in this society, the consequences for the community could be OK. I think it’s really important to note that the research isn’t about looking at what’s right or wrong, that we want people to behave in a certain way. It’s about expanding people’s moral thinking beyond a dichotomous approach, to expand their reasoning to consider more viewpoints.

Can you discuss your recent virtual reality (VR) study?

Primarily, I wanted to study how experiences influence moral decisions. We chose VR as our method because it gives us the ability to test consistent, repeatable experiences over a countless group of participants. I worked with two colleagues in the EPhD program, Paula Mann and Dale Collins, and we conducted the study at the CiBiC lab with Dennis Wittmer as our ARP advisor. Through the ARP program and also with my dissertation, we recruited a total of 120 student participants and used Oculus 2 headsets to provide a consistent VR experience. We sourced existing VR films created by organizations like the United Nations and the New York Times, focusing on themes like environmental impact and social issues, and narrowed those films down to three that we believed would influence moral decision-making. Participants were assessed on their moral reasoning, empathy, compassion and moral foundations pre- and post- the VR experience. What we found was surprising in that, we didn’t see consistent results that the VR films changed a person’s empathy, but there was a significant change in a person’s moral reasoning after experiencing the films. This is one of the reasons Frontiers in Psychology is interested in publishing our study, because it’s opening a new door for investigation in that area. We’ve made it through the interactive review process with Frontiers and we are making some final edits.

What is your goal for the work?

I believe the research and assessment tools of moral psychology are needed to better understand how business decisions around AI and VR are taking place. Interdisciplinary research really does need to take place between the psychology, business, engineering and computer science departments to better design and implement experiments. What I’m advocating for and what I want to continue to do in my future work is to link theories and research around moral psychology with applied psychology for business in the area of ethics, leadership and organizational development.