When an ordinarily moral person chooses wrong over right, we tend to think of the situation as one in a series of steps: Each lie makes the next one a little easier; cheating once means you’re more likely to do it again.
But according to a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science, we may be thinking about it all wrong: When it comes to immoral behavior, it’s easier than we think to go straight from zero to 60. “Contrary to widely shared beliefs, sometimes the route to corruption leads over a steep cliff rather than a slippery slope,” the authors wrote, especially when the right moment presents itself.
Here’s how the Association for Psychological Science blog explained the study, which centered on a multi-round role-playing game:
In each round, two competing players adopted the role of CEO of a construction company, with a budget of $50,000 each to make bids for a contract worth $120,000. A third player, the public official, awarded the contract to the highest bidder. If the bids were equal, the players split the award down the middle. In reality, only one of the competing players was actually a participant – the other competitor and the public official were represented by a computer program.
The players acting as CEOs were also given the chance to try their hand at bribery, a situation that unfolded in one of two ways: In some cases, they could go for a major bribe that would give them the upper hand for the rest of the game; in others, they could initially offer only a smaller bribe, one that would give them a slight advantage, and then later progress to the big one.
Importantly, the bribe was never anything more than an option; Participants could choose to ignore it and play the game straight. Those who used it, though, were more likely to be part of the second condition — in other words, players were more likely to act corrupt when they could go big all at once, rather than when they could more gradually move toward more corrupt behavior. In the second part of the study, the researchers upped the stakes, rewarding players with real money — and once again, those who could use the more drastic bribe were more inclined to cheat than those who only had the possibility of the smaller one.
One explanation for the results, the authors suggested, could be that a bigger bribe is a one-and-done situation: Participants only had to swallow their morals once, as opposed to continually convincing themselves to act against what they knew to be right. “Especially when the decisions appear in rapid succession, people might be reluctant to engage in corruption repeatedly and rather want to reap the benefits of larger forms of corruption in a single act,” lead study author Nils Köbis, a psychologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, told the APS blog. And the more lucrative the opportunity, it seems, the tougher it is to pass up.