Opportunism is in the Eye of the Beholder: Antecedents of Subjective Opportunism Judgments


Contractualist work in business ethics as well as in economic organization theory views opportunistic behaviors as problematic since they create economic harm and are often considered to violate ethical norms. Yet, much of the empirical literature on opportunism has adopted a rather simplistic definition of opportunistic behaviors as behaviors that violate formal and/or relational contracts and assumed that instances of opportunism can be unequivocally defined by simply referring to the content of contracts. The consequence of this assumption has been a disregard for factors other than the content of contracts that may influence whether exchange partners judge an unexpected behavior they face during exchange relationships as opportunistic or not. The present investigation explores the factors that shape exchange partners’ subjective opportunism judgments through two vignette-based laboratory experiments. Results from the first experiment, where subjects were asked to take the perspective of a harmed party, show that opportunism judgments are influenced by the type of the behavior, type of the causal account provided for the behavior, perceived type of the exchange, and personality traits of the actor making the judgment. The second experiment, in which subjects were asked to take the perspective of the transgressor, demonstrates the influence of perspective. In particular, victims are more likely to assess a given unexpected behavior as opportunistic than transgressors, and their judgments do not relate to the underlying factors in the same way as the victims’ judgments. I discuss implications in terms of the governance of interfirm exchange relationships.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Regardless, I measured the two remaining personality traits (i.e., extraversion and openness) using the dedicated 8 and 10 items, respectively, from the 44-item Big Five Inventory (John et al. 2008). When included in the analyses reported in the results section, these two variables came insignificant in both Experiment 1 and Experiment 2, and their inclusion did not change the results for the other variables.

  2. 2.

    To assess measure validity, I first conducted a Principle Component Analysis on these 6 items with data from the active and passive opportunism vignettes. Both Kaiser’s criterion and the scree plot converged on a single component. I then ran a confirmatory factor analysis to verify the single factor structure. The model fit statistics indicate that the single factor structure is a good fit for both the active (χ2(9) = 21.60, p = .01; NFI = 0.95; IFI = 0.97; CFI = 0.97; RMSEA = 0.07) and passive (χ2(9) = 16.70, p = .054; NFI = 0.97; IFI = 0.98; CFI = 0.98; RMSEA = 0.05) opportunism vignettes based on cutoff values provided in Byrne (2010).

  3. 3.

    Items are as follows: (1) It is a weak relationship—(reverse coded), (2) the relationship is characterized by a high level of trust, (3) the relationship makes it easy for you to anticipate Robert's actions, (4) the relationship has a short history—(reverse coded), (5) the relationship is characterized by shared norms of business conduct, (6) The parties have a very good understanding of each other's business interests. (Cronbach’s α = .88).

  4. 4.

    Items are as follows: (1) his personal desires shaped his choice—(reverse coded), (2) he could have chosen to act differently given the circumstances—(reverse coded), (3) uncontrollable external factors forced his hand, (4) his action was largely unavoidable, (5) he had very little choice considering what was happening outside of his firm. (Cronbach’s α = .78 and .84 for the active and passive opportunism vignettes, respectively).

  5. 5.

    I also ran a multilevel linear model (i.e., Mixed Model—Linear procedure in SPSS) Results were identical and are available from the author upon request.

  6. 6.

    One reviewer raised a concern about the external causal account manipulation vignette saying that the remark “to even stay afloat” in the vignette introduces harm to RJ distribution as a consideration, which can confound with the external/internal causal account distinction. In response, I collected data from 195 subjects with a modified version of the external causal account manipulation that did not have this remark (and no other changes in the survey). When I ran the same analysis with these new data, results for H2a remained the same as with the original data, but H2b did not reach statistical significance. To see if this result is due to the smaller sample size of the new data, I combined the new data with the original data (n = 195 + 304 = 499), treated the modified scenario as a fourth causal account type, and ran the MIXED > Linear procedure in SPSS which is capable of handling unequal cell sizes (Field, 2009; Tabachnick and Fidell 2013). Results of this analysis confirmed all the results in the original study, including H2b. Furthermore, pairwise comparisons of the four causal account conditions with a Bonferroni correction revealed that there is virtually no difference between the original and the modified external account vignettes. These results are available from the author upon request.

  7. 7.

    For the active opportunism vignette, Levene’s test indicated unequal variances (F = 5.403, p < .05) so the t value reported is the one that corrects for unequal variances.


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Appendix A: Vignette Description of the Deal Characteristics and Terms

You are the owner of “A&T Supply,” a small office supply manufacturing company. You distribute your products both directly yourself and through independent distributors. One day you get a phone call from Robert Jennings, the owner of “RJ Distribution” which is one of your independent distributors.

Perceived Discrete Exchange Manipulation

Robert is one of your newest business partners as you have been working with RJ Distribution for only a few months. You have not yet formed an opinion about how you like working with Robert because your short partnership involved only two transactions, and you have not yet had the chance to figure out his working style, or to establish a set of shared norms of business conduct with him. The lack of an established relationship between the two of you makes it hard for you to anticipate his actions during your transactions since you do not yet have a full understanding of Robert’s business interests, and mutual trust has not yet developed between the two of you. So far though, your dealings with RJ Distribution have proceeded smoothly.

Perceived Relational Exchange Manipulation

Robert is one of your oldest business partners as you have been working with RJ Distribution for over 10 years. You like working with Robert because over the course of your long partnership, you have engaged in over a hundred transactions, and through those transactions, learned each other’s working styles and established a set of shared norms of business conduct. The strong relationship you have developed is characterized by mutual trust, respect for each other’s business interests, and good faith, making it easy for you to anticipate his actions during your transactions. Owing to this well-established relationship, your dealings with RJ Distribution have always proceeded smoothly.

On the phone, Robert proposes a deal where you will lower your office supply prices 10% for RJ Distribution and hold it constant for your other distributors as well as direct customers. Robert’s intention is to pass the 10% saving on to his customers by lowering his price in an effort to gain strength against his main competitor. When Robert lowers his price in this manner, you will lose money for the first few months because you will lose some of your direct customers to Robert’s lower prices. In addition, your revenues from RJ Distribution will drop. In return, Robert proposes to (1) start buying exclusively from you and (2) invest in a large-scale market penetration effort to earn more customers. As a result, in the long run, you will save on costs associated with acquiring and servicing new customers on your own, and your overall sales volume will grow significantly due to considerably larger orders from RJ Distribution. You evaluate the risks and benefits of the deal carefully and estimate that if all goes as planned, it will bring in about 500,000 dollars in additional annual revenues for A&T Supply.

Finding this figure favorable, you decide to take the deal. Subsequently, you make a verbal agreement with Robert on the above conditions and lower your price 10% for RJ Distribution while holding it constant for your other distributors and direct customers. You perceive a mutual understanding between you and Robert that the deal will be in effect long enough to allow both parties’ benefits to materialize.

Appendix B: Vignette Description of Post-Deal Actions by the Partner

Active Opportunism Vignette

A few months after making the deal, Robert informs you that he has been searching for a cheaper supplier and indeed has found one that offers equivalent products at a price 5% lower than your price. He requests that you match this new supplier’s price and informs you that if you do not, he will switch his orders to the new supplier.

You ask him why he has been actively searching for another supplier when he was supposed to be buying exclusively from you according to your deal. No causal account manipulation: He refrains from giving you a concrete reason. Internal causal account manipulation: His answer suggests that his personal desires shaped his choice of action. In particular, he says that shortly after you made your deal, he came across a beautiful house that he wants to buy. To be able to quickly raise enough money to buy the house, he decided to institute a company-wide cost-cutting initiative in order to increase profits, and the purchasing budget was one of the best candidates to be cut as his supply expenses were already too high. External causal account manipulation: His answer suggests that uncontrollable external factors forced his hand. In particular, he says that shortly after you made your deal, the economy started worsening and three of his relatively larger clients went bankrupt causing RJ Distribution’s revenues to decrease significantly. In addition, his main competitor, the one he was trying to gain strength against through your deal, retaliated unexpectedly to his lowering his prices by lowering its prices even further which caused RJ Distribution to lose a significant amount of market share. Under these circumstances, Robert was forced to lower his costs (including supply costs) to even stay afloat.

After analyzing your numbers, you tell him that you are unable to match the new supplier’s price due to already razor-thin margins. Subsequently, Robert switches a significant portion of RJ Distribution’s orders to the new supplier. You estimate that you lost about 300,000 dollars due to the loss of a portion of your direct customers to RJ Distribution’s lower prices, and lower revenues from RJ Distribution.

Passive Opportunism Vignette

Despite your expectation of a significant increase in the volume of orders from RJ Distribution, the volume of orders increases only marginally after a considerable amount of time. After some investigating, you find out that Robert has not invested in any market penetration efforts.

You call him and ask him why he has not increased his marketing spending when he was supposed to invest toward increased market penetration according to your deal. Causal account manipulations are the same as in the active opportunism vignette.

You estimate that overall, you lost about 300,000 dollars due to the loss of a portion of your direct customers to RJ Distribution’s lower prices, and lower revenues from RJ Distribution.

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Arıkan, A.T. Opportunism is in the Eye of the Beholder: Antecedents of Subjective Opportunism Judgments. J Bus Ethics 161, 573–589 (2020) doi:10.1007/s10551-018-3873-7

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  • Opportunism
  • Judgment
  • Exchange
  • Discrete
  • Relational
  • Active opportunism
  • Passive opportunism
  • Trust
  • Causal account
  • Attribution
  • Big 5
  • Victim
  • Transgressor