Super Bowl Sunday Ethics Quote Of The Day: Professor David DeSteno


“It’s not about the true facts, or about how honest you believe a group is, or what the group’s past behavior is. It doesn’t matter what sport it is, or what team it is, or even if it’s sports at all. Just being a part of a group, any group, is enough to excuse moral transgressions because in some way, you’re benefiting from it. Your moral compass shifts.”

—-David DeSteno, Northeastern University Professor of psychology, explaining why Boston fans believe the New England Patriots, their coach, Bill Belichik, and their star quarterback, Tom Brady, are as pure as the driven snow, while the rest of the country sees them as detestable

The professor’s point will be familiar to any Ethics Alarms readers who have perused the various pots here regarding cognitive dissonance, or even those familiar with the mantra, “Bias makes you stupid.”  However, he has done some interesting research on the phenomenon described in the Times Sports article this morning.

In a psychological experiment, researchers separated people into two groups and offered some of them an option: Complete a fun, 10-minute task, or take on a difficult, 45-minute one. Placed in a room alone, they were told to choose which task they would have to do, or let a coin flip decide. Either way, the person entering the room next would be left with the other task.

Afterward, those people were asked to rate how fairly they had acted, and 90 percent said they had been fair. Except that they were lying. In fact, they had picked the easy task for themselves, without even flipping the coin, wrongly believing that no one was watching…

DeSteno and his former student Piercarlo Valdesolo conducted studies that showed that even strangers placed into groups quickly start favoring the people in their group, as they would favor themselves, even if that group was created randomly, and only minutes earlier. Morality, as it turns out, can change by the second, and for no good reason.

Professor DeSteno told the Times that this isn’t a conscious decision, but an innate survival reaction….

It even showed up in the coin-flip experiment. Before it started, the initial group had been divided using different color wristbands, effectively separating participants into teams, and then some were told to watch on a hidden camera as the coin flippers cheated. When the observers saw people cheat, they considered it unfair and wrong — unless they saw that the cheater was wearing the same color wristband as they were. In those cases, they were much more likely to excuse the behavior.

This is why identifying one’s likely biases that can distort one’s ethical decision-making abilities is so critical. It shouldn’t be that hard, should it? Double standards are often screamingly obvious, which is why saying that it isn’t a conscious decision isn’t always true. Sometimes the hypocrisy is so blatant that the individual involved, having done an ethical U-Turn for “the team,” has to come up with an arguable distinction, even a lame one, to maintain self-respect. That’s where the utilization of rationalizations comes in, and hard. I don’t believe Democrats don’t know that they have been challenging the results of the election, and thus doing exactly what they condemned the President for even hinting he might do before November 8.  They can’t argue that the conduct was innately and horrifically wrong before the election but magically fair after  it, unless they are cognitively impaired or wilful hypocrites. Thus they have to somehow distinguish their current conduct from what they had rejected. It isn’t the same conduct! That’s the ticket! That’s why it’s OK now! Yeah…it’s different!

Fortunately, the Rationalizations List has many options to allow the desperate team player to convince himself that what he is doing to the other team is materially different from what he would have proclaimed to the heavens as foul if it had been done to him. (This also, you will note, avoids dealing with The Golden Rule.) I count 25 of them, about a third of the total…

8A. The Dead Horse-Beater’s Dodge, or “This can’t make things any worse”
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
14. Self-validating Virtue
17. Ethical Vigilantism
21. Ethics Accounting (“I’ve earned this”/ “I made up for that”)
22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
24. Juror 3’s Stand (“It’s My Right!”)
27. The Victim’s Distortion
28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
29. The Altruistic Switcheroo: “It’s for his own good”
30. The Prospective Repeal: “It’s a bad law/stupid rule”
31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now”
32. The Unethical Role Model: “He/She would have done the same thing”
36. Victim Blindness, or “They/He/She/ You should have seen it coming.”
36 C. Donald’s Delusion, or “I never said I was perfect!”
40. The Desperation Dodge or “I’ll do anything!”
45. The Abuser’s License: “It’s Complicated”
50A. Narcissist Ethics , or “I don’t care”
51 . The Underwood Maneuver, or “That’s in the past.”
52. The Hippie’s License, or “If it feels good, do it!” (“It’s natural”)
53. Tessio’s Excuse, or “It’s just business”
57. The Universal Trump, or “Think of the children!”
58. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”
59. The Ironic Rationalization, or “It’s The Right Thing To Do”
61. The Paranoid’s Blindness, or “It’s not me, it’s you.”
62. The Doomsday License

We still have free will, Professor. It’s not that hard to be aware of one’s own biases, to detect when they risk distorting your reason and values, and to act ethically in spite of them, even to one’s own detriment. All it takes is self-awareness, a commitment to ethics, and like getting to Carnegie Hall, practice, practice, practice.

11 thoughts on “Super Bowl Sunday Ethics Quote Of The Day: Professor David DeSteno

  1. Excellent analysis. I do hope David DeSteno has a bodyguard now in Boston: Max the Shiv comes to mind. (I’ll let everyone else write substantively: I’m still caught up in PG Wodehouse, for mental health reasons.)

  2. I have on several occassions referred to this as gang psychology.

    What bothers me is that far too often pseudo leaders with agendas and are unwilling to admit bias are mistaken for real ethical leaders.

  3. SO great. I will share this during the week! WOW… the thing is I find, most people have no desire to admit their biases. The need to defend one’s ego and where one gets most of it’s identity is far too strong for many.

    “Without my strongly held beliefs, who am I?” is frightening for most.

    Thankful beyond words for those who seek truth for the sake of truth.

    Thank you for helping me in my quest for truth. I have found myself considering other views you share and even changing my own when I see where I have been wrong.

    Thank you again!

  4. Would it be more fair and precise to say, instead of “Bias makes you stupid” (which is catchy in the four-word English sloganeering sense), that “Bias makes you blind to your own stupidity?”

    Maybe I’m just splitting semantic hairs. Maybe I’m not. I think of the smartest people I have ever known; every one of them, at one time or another, did or has done something stupid. In my view, they’re not stupid because they did something stupid; doing a stupid thing, even multiple stupid things or the same stupid thing done many times, did not render them permanently and irredeemably stupid. They did something stupid because despite all their smarts, they were not smart (or wise) enough to not act stupidly, in a certain set of circumstances. So, I think that stupidity afflicts us all, every one of us. Some of us deal with it more wisely than others, but bias gets in the way.

    • Lucky, I would disagree to the extent that I believe the “Bias makes you stupid, then blinds you to your own stupidity”. What CM refers to as ‘gang psychology’ could better be described as ‘mob mentality’. For instance, the Berkley Rioters, I would virtually guarantee, are thinking that THIS (their behavior) is what those stupid Trump supporters get for electing him. The problem is that most of the victims of these rioters hated and still hate Trump just as much as the rioters do.

      • Thanks d_d, I can go with what both you and Jack say. On the mob mentality concept, I like the term used more recently, “hive mind.” It makes me think of killer bees: One of them gets excited, and a pheromone is released that gets all the others similarly excited. With the hive-minded Left, all it takes is for a certain “bee” to sense a threat (which confirmation bias predisposes the bee to sense), and the whole fucked-up “hive” goes into sting-and-bite-and-kill-at-all-costs mode. Honestly, the U.S. Left is so primed for totalitarianism, sometimes I wish that I could exterminate them pre-emptively and euthanasially – even, “Samson-ally.”

  5. Jack, I see a bigger issue in all of this, that hasn’t been addressed. It’s our tendency for Loss Aversion. I once read a great article on how we become pack rats with our possessions. It said in it, we continue to hold on to things that have lost all its value. That we see and ignore opportunities to mitigate our losses because we hold on to irrational beliefs that the item value will return, and perhaps appreciate, in value. I have an Xbox One I purchased in 2015. I purchased a newer version of the Xbox One in 2016. The old one no longer has any value to me, I only need one to play the movies I like to watch on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. I have been trying to reduce the loss that will occur when I off load the older version. I would like to give it to someone I know. However, everyone I know, already has one as well and doesn’t need a second one. To trade it in means losing 75% of the purchase price I spent on its original acquisition. I know I should take that before I get to a point where I can only get about 5% of what I spent. Anyway, that is what I see going on with those protesting Trump. They are/were so heavily invested in having Hillary win the election. She lost and they lost. Now they are going through different stages, trying their best to handle that loss, and our minds natural means of avoiding that loss. All the rationalizations are their way of coping. I hope in time that will pass for them, they will cut their ties with the investment they had with Hillary and move on with their lives. But for now, they need our pity.

  6. I watched the Superbowl with some former east coast transplantees. Of course, they are die hard Patriot fans. Being a polite guest (and not having a dog in the hunt) I mildly rooted for their team.

    During the game, one of the adult daughters remarked on a conversation she overheard in line at the supermarket just before the game. A mother was telling her little girl that “Momma does not like the Patriots, dear.” To which her daughter replied “Well, everyone hates the Patriots.” My hostess was wearing a Brady jersey in preparation for the game, and felt a bit uncomfortable.

    I, again being the gracious guest, upon hearing her story, immediately comforted her with “Oh, I’m sure that reports of general hatred for the Patriots are inflated.”

  7. This is way off-topic, so I apologize in advance: Did the President make a congratulatory phone call to the Super Bowl champions, like, is traditional, in their locker room after the game? I stayed up after the game and watched Fox for a good while (but also, strayed away for a few minutes, a couple of times), and never saw or heard about such a call.

    I am sure Jack would not mind if the tradition, of a presidential congratulatory phone call to the winners, ended. But, hey, unethical business (NFL), unethical President (Hil- I mean, Trump), so I would expect birds of a feather to flock together. (Until Liz Warren becomes President – I can’t imagine her talking to a bunch of sweaty men – too much like her “native people,” and part of a big business, too, so she would not speak to such hated, hate-worthy money-grubbers.)

    • That tradition is pretty much gone; the White House visit is in. Toure, ESPN’s resident race-baiter, tweeted before the game that it would be great if the Falcons refused to visit the White House. Glenn Reynolds’ reaction was his trademarked, “Heh.”

      Kraft is a big Trump booster.

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