Slippery slopes and the boiling-frog effect: How the Republican Party succumbed to Trump

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Catherine A. Sanderson, Opinion contributor
·6 min read
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Only 27 congressional Republicans were willing to acknowledge the results of the November election in a Washington Post survey this month. A majority of Republicans in Congress backed a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of Texas to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Multiple news outlets reported that on Friday, President Donald Trump discussed invoking martial law and appointing a conspiracy theorist to investigate voter fraud. On Sunday, he asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse three Pennsylvania Supreme Court rulings on ballots cast there.

Many have been shocked by the silence — and even support — of so many elected members of the GOP in response to Trump’s increasingly outlandish claims. But their behavior isn’t at all surprising to social psychologists: It’s a perfect demonstration of how toxic environments grow gradually, as problematic behavior starts with something small that then continues and expands.

Francesca Gino and Max Bazerman at the Harvard Business School designed a series of studies to test whether people would be less likely to report bad behavior if it built up gradually. They asked participants to serve as “auditors” and to accept or reject estimates of the number of pennies in a jar. In some cases the estimators gradually inflated their numbers over time — increasing by just 40 cents a round. In others they made more abrupt changes, jumping by $4. Over half (52%) of the gradual change auditors approved the estimates, compared with only 24% of those in the abrupt change group. The authors attribute this difference to the “boiling frog effect.”

Politics to frats to corporate boards

And this slippery slope isn’t unique to the political world. It happens in all types of environments, from fraternity houses to corporate boards.

In the fall of 2018, the psychological community was stunned when they heard that current and former students of Dartmouth College’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences had filed a lawsuit accusing three well-known faculty members of engaging in inappropriate behavior — including sexual harassment and assault — over more than 16 years. (In August 2019, Dartmouth settled the lawsuit for $14 million, although the college did not admit liability.)

As Leah Somerville, director of the Affective Neuroscience and Development Laboratory at Harvard University, wrote about her own experience as a graduate student at Dartmouth: “If you are steeped in an environment with toxic norms, it is likely that you can’t even see it for yourself. For example, while I was there it was common for certain faculty members to joke about details of trainees’ sex lives in the lab and public settings. At first, this made me very uncomfortable. But as those types of exchanges happened regularly and became more egregious, they seemed less and less scandalous.”

U.S. Capitol building on Dec. 20, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Capitol building on Dec. 20, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Real-world cases of corporate fraud provide similar evidence of the slippery slope of problematic behavior. Interviews with financial executives indicted for accounting fraud reveal that their conduct in virtually all cases escalated gradually. Here’s how one former chief financial officer described it: “Crime starts small, it progresses very slowly. First you work off the books. Some people say it’s not a crime, OK, we’ll rationalize it and say it’s not a crime.” And once you start down this path, it’s really hard to pull yourself out.

What can we do to avoid following in the footsteps of so many in the Republican Party in our own personal and professional lives?

Strangers to me: I used to cover Republicans who are cowering to Trump. I don't recognize them now.

First, increase self-awareness. We all like to think of ourselves as good people who do the right thing. Subtle reminders of our own behavior can therefore push us toward more ethical behavior. A study by researchers at Harvard Business School found that 37% of students who sign an honor code before completing a financial form ultimately cheat — but that number climbs to 79% when students sign their name only after completing the form.

And it's not just college students who show greater honesty when first asked to affirm a commitment to ethical behavior. Car insurance customers who are asked to sign a statement verifying the information they provide is true before completing the form report higher car mileage (and thus greater premiums) than those who sign only at the end of the form. These small cues that increase self-awareness — like signing your name — can push people toward more ethical behavior. It’s precisely why I make all students in my classes sign a pledge at the start of each exam I give.

A single step in right direction

Another subtle strategy for pushing people toward ethical behavior is to ask people to reflect on a time when they did not behave honorably and which they now regret. Research by Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Oliver Sheldon at Rutgers Business School demonstrates that asking people to reflect on their own bad behavior in the past reduces their willingness to do so again. Why? This step at least pushes us to think about the choice we are making, before we head down that slippery slope.

Former NH GOP chair: Texas lawsuit was the last straw. I'm leaving Republicans.

Finally, when we find ourselves in a tricky situation, it’s really important to take a single step in the right direction. For example, the anti-bullying program Steps to Respect trains teachers and students to call out subtle forms of aggression like name-calling and ostracism, instead of waiting for behavior to escalate to physical violence. Responding to low-level types of bullying helps people gain skills that make it easier to respond more effectively to more overt acts of bullying. But more important, stopping low-level aggression might change the school climate to one where fewer students feel ostracized and there is less bullying later on.

This same process of early intervention applies in all sorts of daily situations, from calling out a friend for making a racist joke, reporting hazing on an athletic team to confronting a colleague who falsifies expense reports. This is precisely the approach used in the most effective programs shown to prevent bullying in schools, harassment in the workplace, and police misconduct. In other words, do sweat the small stuff. Republicans should think about trying it.

Catherine A. Sanderson, the Poler Family Professor and Chair of Psychology at Amherst College, is the author of "Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels." Follow her on Twitter: @SandersonSpeaks

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republicans could have resisted Donald Trump by sweating the small stuff