Slippery Slope: Minor unethical acts can compound into major ones

What’s the harm in a purloined pen or a slight reporting fib at the office?

Not much, by itself. But new research by David Welsh at the University of Washington Foster School of Business demonstrates that minor ethical breaches tend to lead incrementally to major transgressions.

Welsh and three co-authors have produced some of the first empirical evidence supporting the “slippery slope” theory of ethics—that misdemeanors lead to higher crimes.

From a series of studies, they conclude that people are more likely to justify small misdeeds than large ones. But when those small crimes are followed by progressively larger offenses, the tendency to justify expands with the crime. The result is that people are more than twice as likely to commit—and justify—a major unethical act after they have “worked their way up” to it with a series of escalating offenses.

“When you start small it’s easy to justify unethical behavior, but much harder to do when it’s something big,” says Welsh, an assistant professor of management at Foster. “Except when you start down the slippery slope, the incremental progression of acts allows you eventually to rationalize even major unethical behaviors.”

Classic inspiration

Welsh says the study was informed, in part, by the infamous work of Stanley Milgram. In the 1960s, the Yale psychologist demonstrated that ordinary people are capable of delivering powerful—even fatal—electric shocks to an unseen (but not unheard) subject when directed by an authority figure.

Though Milgram instructed his subjects to inflict charges of gradually increasing intensity, he wasn’t examining the evolution of unethical acts, per se, but rather our tendency toward blind obedience to authority.

Welsh was intrigued by the means to this end. To what degree did starting small and escalating incrementally lead to a 450-volt electrocution?

“The research raised some interesting questions for us,” says Welsh. “Maybe part of what was happening was due to this progression from minor to medium to major shocks. Without a comparison condition, there was no way to tell.”

Incremental ethics

So Welsh and his co-authors—Lisa D. Ordóñez of the University of Arizona and Deirdre G. Snyder and Michael S. Christian of the University of North Carolina—designed studies to examine the effect of compounding on unethical behavior.

They adapted some proven ethical tests from the literature to measure a person’s tendency to cheat. But instead of measuring decisions at a single moment, they tested behavior over time to chart the evolution of unethical acts.

In one condition, study participants were offered an opportunity to commit a minor cheat for a small reward followed immediately by the opportunity to commit a major cheat for a much larger reward. The participants in this condition were likely to rationalize the small offense, but unlikely to justify the larger one after such an abrupt escalation.

In the other condition, participants were offered sequential opportunities to commit a string of progressively larger cheats. This gradual evolution to higher crimes rendered participants more than twice as likely than those in the first condition to rationalize the largest cheat.

Justified

This ability to justify an unethical act is known as “moral disengagement,” a form of self-deception that allows guilty people to feel better about themselves.

Welsh and his colleagues have shown that it’s much easier to morally disengage from major unethical behavior by first starting small and working your way up gradually.

The authors note a particularly illustrative comment from one of history’s most egregious examples of this effect: Bernie Madoff, the notorious Ponzi scheme operator who fleeced clients of more than $18 billion.

“It starts out with you taking a little bit, maybe a few hundred, a few thousand,” Madoff disclosed to his long-time secretary, as reported in Vanity Fair. “You get comfortable with that, and before you know it, it snowballs into something big.”

Getting engaged

For organizations, Welsh suggests that the best way to prevent slides down the ethical slippery slope is by instilling a strong ethical culture that clearly defines and punishes misconduct. Addressing minor offenses quickly is the best defense against larger ones down the line.

“You can reduce the likelihood of major unethical acts by putting people in a more vigilant mindset—providing ethics training, enacting ethical standards and having managers who reinforce those standards,” Welsh says.

The Slippery Slope: How Small Ethical Transgressions Pave the Way for Larger Future Transgressions” is published in the May 2014 Journal of Applied Psychology.