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Referred to as the slippery slope, incrementalism describes how we unconsciously lower our ethical standards over time through small changes in behavior.

Discussion Questions

1. Psychologist Dan Ariely says, “The first dishonest act is the most important one to prevent.” Why does he say that? Do you agree?

2. Can you think of a situation where you were a victim of the slippery slope phenomenon?

3. Have you seen a friend or read about someone in the newspaper who started cutting little corners and was soon in big trouble?

4. Cynthia Cooper, whistleblower of the infamous WorldCom financial fraud, wrote: “People don’t wake up and say, ‘I think I’ll become a criminal today.’ Instead, it’s often a slippery slope and we lose our footing one step at a time.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, has stated that one of the most important lessons of his life is that it is easier to do the right thing a hundred percent of the time than ninety-eight percent of the time.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

6. What can people do to prevent a mistake from snowballing down the slippery slope?

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as incrementalism. Referred to as the “slippery slope,” incrementalism describes how we unconsciously lower our ethical standards over time through small changes in behavior. Incrementalism may occur when the ethical dimensions of an issue fade from view. For leaders, incrementalism may have dire effects on the companies or people they oversee.

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts, watch Ethical Fading and Ethical Leadership, Part 1: Perilous at the Top.

The case study on this page, “The FBI & Apple: Security vs. Privacy,” raises questions about how to strike a balance between maintaining national security and protecting user privacy, without facing a slippery slope that would open up either side to dangerous consequences. For a related case study about the potential harms caused in the security vs. privacy debate, read “Edward Snowden: Traitor or Hero?”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: ethical fading, framing, and incrementalism.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

The latest resource from Ethics Unwrapped is a book, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice. This accessible book is amply footnoted with behavioral ethics studies and associated research. It also includes suggestions at the end of each chapter for related Ethics Unwrapped videos and case studies. Some instructors use this resource to educate themselves, while others use it in lieu of (or in addition to) a textbook.

Cara Biasucci also recently wrote a chapter on integrating Ethics Unwrapped in higher education, which can be found in the latest edition of Teaching Ethics: Instructional Models, Methods and Modalities for University Studies. The chapter includes examples of how Ethics Unwrapped is used at various universities.

The most recent article written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice describes the basics of behavioral ethics and introduces Ethics Unwrapped videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples. It also includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. Published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), it can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

An article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduce key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. Published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, it can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

A detailed article written by Robert Prentice, with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, was published in Journal of Legal Studies Education and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”

Another article by Robert Prentice, discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, was published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy. It can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?

A dated (but still serviceable) introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department 
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

“People tend to believe that they have good moral character, and therefore they are confident that when they face issues with moral dimensions they will make good choices. However, Cynthia Cooper, who was the whistleblower in the infamous WorldCom fraud, wrote that, “People do not wake up one day and say, ‘Today is the day I think I will start my life of crime.’ Instead, it is often a slippery slope we slowly lose our ethical footing one step at a time.” This process is what behavioral ethicists call “incrementalism.”

As an example, think about the Abu Ghraib prison site, and the mistreatment of some of the inmates there. A female soldier wrote: “In the beginning, you see someone naked and you see underwear on their head and you are like, ‘Oh, that is pretty bad — I cannot believe I just saw that.’ And then you go to bed and you come back the next day and you see something worse. ‘Well, it seems like the day before was not so bad.’”

This is the slippery slope at work. And if we are not careful we can easily go from minor transgressions in our workplace, such as taking a few office supplies home for personal use or lightly padding our expense account, to more serious transgressions.

Francesca Gino and Max Bazerman, who are psychologists at the Harvard Business School, refer to it as the “boiling frog syndrome.” It is said that if you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, he will jump out. But if you place him in a pot of cool water and gradually turn up the heat, he will slowly boil to death. I do not think Gino and Bazerman actually experimented on frogs, but they observed humans, and found that we unconsciously lower the bar over time through small changes in ethicality.

Think about it: most multi-million dollar securities frauds start with executives fudging fairly small numbers but over time those numbers grow through incrementalism. An officer who was caught up in the Enron scandal later said, “You did it once, it smelled bad. He did it again, it did not smell bad.” That is incrementalism at work.”



Cooper, Cynthia. 2008. Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Gino, Francesca, and Max H. Bazerman. 2009. “When Misconduct Goes Unnoticed: The Acceptability of Gradual Erosion.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (4): 708-719.

Gourevitch, Philip. 2008. “Exposure: The Woman Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib.” New Yorker, March 24.

Hoyk, Robert, and Paul Hersey. 2008. The Ethical Executive: Becoming Aware of the Root Causes of Unethical Behavior: 45 Psychological Traps That Every One of Us Falls Prey To. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.