It is widely accepted that when popular figures descend into corruption, they do so a little at a time. Consider the case of Bernie Madoff, the perpetrator of the largest Ponzi scheme in history. According to some accounts, his far-reaching fraud began with making up a few figures on some client investment reports. Over time, this seemingly minor peccadillo snowballed into a $65 billion swindle.
But is this “slippery slope” view of corruption really accurate? New research published in Psychological Science suggests the answer may be “not always.” Instead, acts of corruption may often emerge all at once: right at the moment a person in power is granted a “golden opportunity.” This has implications for everything from banks to corporations—as well as for the current state of American politics.
The purpose of this study (conducted, in part, by the last two authors of this article) was to investigate the conditions that lead people to behave corruptly. To do this, we created the so called the “corruption game.” The corruption game takes place in a series of five rounds. Subjects play the role of a CEO of a construction company. The aim of the CEO in each round is to win a contract worth $120,000. To accomplish this, the CEO must outbid a competitor in an auction run by a government official. The CEO can place bids in $10,000 increments from $0 to $50,000. In the event that the CEO and the competitor bid the same amount, the contract is split evenly between them. This is known as the “fair bidding” process.
To circumvent the fair bidding process, the CEO is given the opportunity to bribe the government official. This causes the official to bestow the full value of the contract on CEO in the event of a tie.
Subjects are assigned to two conditions. In the “slippery slope” condition, opportunities to bribe increase gradually. First, subjects are given the opportunity to make a Small Bribe: to invite the public official to a banquet. If they choose this option, the public official will give them an advantage in 50% of subsequent ties. Subjects are then given the opportunity to offer the Big Bribe: an expenses-paid trip to Paris. By accepting this offer, the official agrees to give the CEO unfair advantage on all subsequent ties.
The other experimental condition is the “steep cliff” condition. In this condition, subjects are simply given the chance to offer the Big Bribe.
Simply put, the conditions differ solely according to whether or not the Big Bribe is preceded by a Small Bribe.
The main question was: in which condition would players bribe more? If the “slippery slope” theory is true, more people should enact the Big Bribe when it’s preceded by the smaller. On the other hand, if more people bribe in the “steep cliff” condition, it would suggest that they are more likely to break rules of morality when given an unexpected opportunity.
The results supported the second conclusion. More people attempted to bribe the public official when the opportunity for corruption was presented all-at-once than little-by-little. This effect held true across several variations of the study, including those run online and in person, and using both imaginary and actual money. When the right moment arises, people leap at the chance to swindle.
Precisely why people are more prone to corruption when they are given a golden opportunity remains to be determined. Past research on dishonesty shows that, because people feel an intense need to see themselves as moral and just, they are most likely to act dishonestly when they feel they are justified in doing so. The worst crooks are the ones who can convince themselves they’re angels.
Perhaps, then, the reason corruption happens on a “steep cliff” is that it is easier for people to maintain this angelic self-image when they commit a single, solitary sin than when they sin repeatedly over time. They are better able to rationalize their behavior, telling themselves it’s just a “one time thing.”
Alternatively, the “golden opportunity” may give people the feeling that they’re finally getting what they deserve.
Whatever the underlying explanation, the results of this experiment shed some light on the current American political situation. The 2016 Presidential election thrust into power a man whose relationship to ethics is tenuous at best. Moreover, members of his administration, shunted to the sidelines during Obama’s tenure, have suddenly been granted heretofore unimagined responsibility. This opens the door for golden opportunities to work the levers of power in unscrupulous ways. Citizens concerned with upholding basic moral standards in the American political system should be on the lookout, not just for a gradual unraveling of ethical principles, but also for swift and egregious attempts to undermine the system for personal gain.