The slippery slope: How small ethical transgressions pave the way for larger future transgressions

David T. Welsh, Lisa D. Ordóñez, Deirdre G. Snyder, Michael S. Christian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

183 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)114-127
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Applied Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2015


  • Behavioral ethics
  • Moral disengagement
  • Regulatory focus
  • Self-regulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology


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