The Slippery Slope: How Small Ethical Transgressions Pave the Way for Larger Future Transgressions

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Abstract

Many recent corporate scandals have been described as resulting from a slippery slope in which a series of small infractions gradually increased over time (e.g., McLean & Elkind, 2003). However, behavioral ethics research has rarely considered how unethical behavior unfolds over time. In this study, we draw on theories of self-regulation to examine whether individuals engage in a slippery slope of increasingly unethical behavior. First, we extend Bandura's (1991, 1999) social-cognitive theory by demonstrating how the mechanism of moral disengagement can reduce ethicality over a series of gradually increasing indiscretions. Second, we draw from recent research connecting regulatory focus theory and behavioral ethics (Gino & Margolis, 2011) to demonstrate that inducing a prevention focus moderates this mediated relationship by reducing one's propensity to slide down the slippery slope. We find support for the developed model across 4 multiround studies.

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