Tempted to take an extra shampoo bottle from your hotel room? Or to say you’ve got a bad headache so you can leave work early to get ready for a big date? Be careful. What may seem like a small ethical transgression now could lead to much bigger problems in the future. At least that’s the result of a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Researchers trying to understand big corporate scandals found that when a small ethical sin goes unchecked, bigger sins are much more likely to follow.
The study, by David Welsh of the University of Washington, Michael Christian of the University of North Carolina, Lisa Ordóñez of the University of Arizona, and Deirdre Snyder of Providence College, involved tempting subjects with small ethical challenges and then moving on to more serious problems.
In one experiment, for example, researchers asked students and professionals to look at a series of screens, each containing a dot-filled triangle, and asked them to estimate which had more dots. The participants were paid a higher reward for choosing the left screen over the right. Those that picked the left tended to stick with it when the pattern changed gradually, even when there were clearly more dots on the right. Those in a second group that saw the pattern flip abruptly were much more likely to be honest.
Conditions where incentives for little lies (just a couple of extra dots) slowly morphed into incentives for big ones (way too many dots) “more than doubled the rates of unethical behavior,” the researchers wrote.
Small, unethical actions might seem innocuous, said Ordóñez in a press release. “People rationalize their behavior to justify it. They might think, ‘No one got hurt’ or ‘Everyone does it.’ The next time they feel fine about doing something a little bit worse the next time and then commit more severe unethical actions.”
“Because of this rationalization process – what we call moral disengagement – people are more likely to slip into a pattern of behavior,” said Snyder. “We call this the slippery-slope effect.”
Christian noted that “the slippery-slope effect is personified by Bernie Madoff, who in 2009 described it to Vanity Fair this way: “Well, you know what happens is, it starts out with you taking a little bit, maybe a few hundred, a few thousand. You get comfortable with that, and before you know it, it snowballs into something big.’”
The researchers recommend several steps for corporations to take to block the slippery slope effect, including ensuring that misconduct is clearly defined, setting and maintaining an ethical status quo, and being vigilant about small ethical lapses and addressing them