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 are therefore confident that they will make good choices when they face moral issues.
But Cynthia Cooper, who was the whistleblower in a gigantic financial fraud, wrote: “People don’t wake up one day and say, ‘Today is the day I think I’ll start my life of crime.’ Instead, it’s often a slippery slope; we slowly lose our ethical footing one step at a time.” This psychological influence is what behavioral ethicists call “incrementalism.”
Research shows that most multi-million-dollar financial frauds started with people fudging fairly small numbers. Over time, those numbers grew larger. As an executive in the Enron scandal said (quote): “You did it once, it smelled bad. You did it again, it didn’t smell bad.” This is how incrementalism works.
Incrementalism also happens in the world of sports. In 2006, U.S.C. running back Reggie Bush lost the National Championship game, but he won the Heisman Trophy that year. Later, the NCAA learned that Bush had been taking bribes from a sports agent while still in college. The bribery probably started small, maybe when he accepted a limo ride from the sports agent to the Heisman Trophy ceremony the year before. But things tend to escalate. When you’ve taken one thing, taking something a little more valuable the next time doesn’t seem so bad. Ultimately, Bush and his family accepted $300,000 or more in cash and gifts. Bush had to forfeit the Heisman Trophy and U.S.C was severely punished by the NCAA.
Clayton Christensen became a famous professor at Harvard Business School. When he was in college, Christensen helped his British university’s basketball team reach the national championship contest. The game was scheduled for a Sunday, and Christensen refused to play. To play a game on Sunday would violate his Mormon faith. When the coach urged Christensen to make an exception just this one time, he refused. Christensen knew that if he did something he felt to be wrong one time, it would be easier to make an excuse the next time temptation appeared.
The way we can stop from sliding down the slippery slope is to do the right thing every time, as challenging as that may be. As Professor Christensen knew, given the influence of incrementalism, it’s easier to do the right thing one hundred percent of the time than it is to do it ninety-eight percent of the time.