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When misconduct goes unnoticed: The acceptability of gradual erosion in others’ unethical behavior

Perhaps the contrast bias is more prevalent than we thought. This study indicates that we accept certain behaviors we wouldn’t normally if they are slow to change.

Four laboratory studies show that people are more likely to accept others’ unethical behavior when ethical degradation occurs slowly rather than in one abrupt shift. Participants served in the role of watchdogs charged with catching instances of cheating. The watchdogs in our studies were less likely to criticize the actions of others when their behavior eroded gradually, over time, rather than in one abrupt shift. We refer to this phenomenon as the slippery-slope effect. Our studies also demonstrate that at least part of this effect can be attributed to implicit biases that result in a failure to notice ethical erosion when it occurs slowly. Broadly, our studies provide evidence as to when and why people accept cheating by others and examine the conditions under which the slippery-slope effect occurs.

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