“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.