Do folks who routinely behave unethically just wake up in the morning and decide they want to be evil? While that'd be a nice and simple way of explaining why people do bad things, the truth is probably not as starkly black and white as we'd like to believe.

In fact, it's more likely that patterns of unethical behavior snowballed over time, this according to a Harvard Business Review article penned by three professors from Harvard, University of Arizona, and University of Washington. The authors use Bernie Madoff as an example. His infamous Ponzi scheme began not as a well-planned nefarious plot, but because he decided to fuzz a few numbers to cover up relatively small losses. One unethical act perpetuated other unethical acts and ended up leading to the largest financial fraud in U.S. history.

While Madoff's crimes ensure that he'll rot in prison for the rest of his life, the HBR authors stress that the behavior that led to his extreme acts could pop up in other peoples' lives, just on a smaller scale.

"Few of us will ever descend as deeply into crime as Bernard Madoff, yet we all are vulnerable to the same slippery slope. We are likely to begin with small indiscretions such as taking home office supplies, exaggerating mileage statements, or miscategorizing a personal meal in a restaurant as business-related. Nearly three-quarter of the employees who responded to one survey reported that they had observed unethical or illegal behavior by coworkers in the past year."

So the theory here is that patterns of unethical behavior begin as small transgressions that cascade over time. To test this, the authors set up an experiment that would goad subjects into cheating at incrementally higher levels:

"We predicted that if we could get people to cheat a little in one round, they might be willing to cheat a bit more in another round, and finally cheat 'big' in a third round.

This is precisely what we found: When given a series of problem-solving tasks, 50% of our subjects cheated to earn $.25 per problem in the first round, and 60% cheated to earn $2.50 per problem in the final round. However, the people in the abrupt change group who could not cheat during the first two rounds were much less willing to cheat big for $2.50 per problem during the final round (only about 30% did)."

The authors found that those who rationalize minor indiscretions would likely do the same for worse behavior on a gradual scale. Those engaging in unethical acts are also less likely to do anything about deteriorating behavior in others.

Read the entire article (linked below) to learn more about unethical behavior and what can be done to curb the snowball effect.

Read more at Harvard Business Review

Photo credit: Ivelin Radkov / Shutterstock

For more on Business Ethics, check out the following Big Think interview featuring Robert Dolan, Dean of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business: