Getting away with small misdeeds, such as stealing a pen from work, may make it easier for people to justify bigger, more serious crimes, according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
After conducting four experiments, researchers found that people are more likely to begin cheating when the stakes are small and misdeeds are easier to rationalize.
“Because individuals more readily justify small indiscretions as opposed to major ethical, moral disengagement is likely to occur when unethical behavior develops gradually over time rather than abruptly,” writes Dr. David Welsh, a psychological scientist at the University of Washington and colleagues. “We call this the slippery-slope effect.”
In one experiment, researchers asked 73 college students to solve a series of math problems. For each correct answer, the participant could earn a small cash prize. Each student was assigned to one of three conditions, depending on how much they could earn for each round of problems: a consistent payment condition, an abrupt-change condition, and a gradual-change condition.
Participants in the consistent payment condition received $2.50 for each correct answer across all of the rounds. Students in the abrupt-change condition weren’t compensated at all for their performance in the first two rounds, but could earn $2.50 for each correct answer in round three.
In the gradual-change condition, the students could earn slightly larger cash prizes after each round of the game: $0.25 for each math problem solved correctly in the first round, $1.00 for each correct answer during round two, and $2.50 for each correct answer during round three.
After each round, the students were given an answer sheet to check their own work and pay themselves from a cash-filled envelope provided by the researchers.
The participants were unaware of a unique coded number that connected the worksheets to the answers, allowing the researchers to identify any cheating that may have taken place.
As expected, the most cheating took place in the gradual-change condition. Facing a slippery-slope situation, where opportunities to cheat started off small and gradually increased in scope, encouraged people to cheat at twice the rate compared to the other conditions.
“Contrary to the argument of some researchers that employees are prone to committing only minor indiscretions, our results suggest that small indiscretions may snowball into major violations over time if left unchecked,” the researchers write.
To help prevent unethical activities on the job, the researchers suggest that managers emphasize strong ethical policies and deal with small misdeeds before they have a chance to escalate. In one experiment, the researchers found they could even successfully prevent cheating by having participants think about risk and potential negative outcomes just before an opportunity to cheat.
“The ideal is for employees to recognize when they’ve committed a minor transgression and check themselves,” said Michael Christian, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We hope that our research, by drawing attention to this effect, will increase vigilance by individual business leaders.”