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We Don’t Gradually Glide Into Corrupt Behavior—We Jump Head First

New research disputes the popular “slippery slope” notion of corruption.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: nist6dh/Flickr)

The specter of corruption is in the news at the moment, given fears that our next president will enrich himself and his family while in office. So it’s a good time to take a step back and ask: What leads people to make dishonest, self-serving decisions?

It is widely believed that losing one’s moral compass is a gradual process. Breaking a small ethical rule gives us license to break a larger one, and then a still larger one, until unethical behavior gradually feels normal.

But newly published research asserts this “intuitively compelling notion” is inaccurate. In four experiments, participants were more likely to engage in large-scale unethical behavior if the opportunity came out of the blue, rather than after they had previously given in to minor temptations.

“Contrary to the widespread belief that people gradually slide into corruption down a slippery slope,” writes a research team from Vrije University Amsterdam, “people may instead jump into severe corruption over a steep cliff.”

A research team led by psychologist Nils Kobis provide evidence of this dynamic in the journal Psychological Science. The first of their four experiments featured a five-round auction game “in which one of the two players gets the option to circumvent the fair-bidding process by bribing the allocator.”

The participants — 86 university students — assumed the role of CEO of a construction company, who was in contact with a public official regarding a proposed a building project. They were randomly assigned to a “slippery slope” or “steep cliff” condition.

Those in the first group were given the opportunity to invite the public official to a banquet, which gave them an advantage in the bidding rounds. Later in the process, they were offered the option “to directly invite the public official on a private vacation (severe bribery),” which ensured an even greater advantage in future bidding rounds.

In contrast, those in the “steep cliff” condition were given the vacation-bribe option right off the bat. Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers report “the odds of abrupt severe bribery were 4.82 times higher compared with the odds of gradual severe bribery.”

The researchers replicated these results in a larger, online version of the game, as well as one in which successful bidders won a real-life monetary prize. In all cases, “people were more likely to engage in severe corruption when this option was presented abruptly rather than gradually,” they write, “even though they did acknowledge the unethicality of severe corruption.”

The researchers note that opportunities for corruption create internal tension, as they place two of our objectives in opposition: To retain your self-image as a good person, and to enjoy the benefits of dishonesty. These results suggest “a single severe act might be easier to justify than a two-step process,” allowing us to more easily retain our high opinion of ourselves. After all, they write, each additional corrupt act “poses another threat to one’s self-image.” Better to offer one big bribe and be done with it.

So don’t be shocked if someone you always thought of as honest takes advantage of an opportunity to benefit from corrupt dealing. Corruption can be a way of life, but for those who wish to think of themselves as good people, a one-time exception may be the way to gain maximum advantage at the lowest cost to one’s self-esteem.