Ethical Transgressions: Small Steps Lead to Big Consequences

Sport is a world of ethical transgressions. In the past month, baseball pitchers have been caught with illegal substance used to improve their pitches, other baseball players have used performance enhancing drugs, and Tom Brady and the New England Patriots received their punishments for deflating football beyond the permissible limit. This is just a sampling of what seems like a never ending barrage of news related to coaches, players, and administrators breaking rules. 

One question that sometimes arises in such cases is, what factors led to the cheating? David Welsh, Lisa Ordóñez, Deirdre Snyder, and Michael Christian recently published a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology* that might provide the answer. These authors suggest that rarely do people move from ethical behavior to engaging in large transgressions. Instead, they take little unethical steps along the way, such that by the time they reach the point of engaging in substantial unethical behavior, the final step (or choice) is a small one. They wrote, "we argue that committing small indiscretions over time may gradually lead people to commit larger unethical acts that they otherwise would have judged to be impermissible" (p. 114). They call this the slippery slope of ethical transgressions.

They conducted four experiments to test these possibilities. Some of these experiments included undergraduates students, while others included working adults; some included payment incentives, while others did not. The experimental manipulation was such that in the slippery slope conditions, the participants were given incrementally larger incentives to cheat, while in the abrupt condition, there was a large change from no incentives to a very large one. Across the four studies, the authors observed the following:

  1. In slippery slope conditions (those with incremental incentives), participants were twice as likely to cheat relative to their peers. 
  2. The relationship between the slippery slope and unethical behaviors was affected by people's more disengagement. That is, as they made a series of ethical decisions, the possibility for small ethical transgressions was associated with increased moral disengagement, which was then associated with cheating behavior. 
  3. Encouragingly, the authors found that a prevention focus can stem this cheating. This is even the case among people in conditions (slippery slope) where cheating would likely occur. 

Collectively, this work provides a glimpse into why people cheat. It is rare that they take a step from behaving ethically to engaging in major acts of unethical behavior. Instead, they make small choices along the way. As they do, their level of disengagement increases, which serves as a psychological protective mechanism. Bernie Madoff is cited in the paper, noting: "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."

Given that most people are confronted with these small choices every day, these results can be disheartening. The good news is, that a preventive focus can help. By setting a culture of ethical behaviors and addressing minor issues, managers, coaches, and players can take steps to curb the cases of unethical behavior. I suspect it is also important to set that preventive focus for ourselves, knowing the many pitfalls associated with that slippery slope. 


* Welsh, D. T., Ordóñez, L. D., Snuder, D. G., & Christian, M. S. (2015). The slippery slope: How small ethical transgressions pave the way for larger future transgressions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 114-127.