Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cheaters Never Apologize: Moral Disengagment During Immoral Acts

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In 2009, Alex Rodriguez (since nicknamed "A-Roid") admitted to using performance enhancing drugs during the 2003 baseball season. This revelation followed on the heels of a federal investigation of steroid use in baseball, a tell-all book by Jose Canseco, in which he named several players he allegedly knew used steroids, and the federal bust of a laboratory in the Bay Area (BALCO) that supplied steroids to athletes.

In case you were wondering if cheating through taking banned substances is confined to baseball, it happens in many other sports. Professional cycling has had a long list of it's highest caliber cyclists banned or suspended from racing due to testing positive for performance enhancing drugs (the face of US cycling, Lance Armstrong continues to face international scrutiny for alleged performance enhancing drug use). Professional fighting has had a history of black eyes (pun definitely intended) from championship fights being tainted by steroid use. Most recently, in August of 2010 a mixed martial arts organization--the UFC-- held a middleweight championship fight that was tainted when contender Chael Sonnen tested positive for steroid use following his fight with champion Anderson Silva.

Perhaps you think cheating is the domain of professional athletes--whose youth and wealth mean poor decision-making? Well, you'd be wrong. 

Mark Hauser, by all accounts an exceedingly brilliant researcher and writer was found guilty of academic misconduct by an oversight committee at Harvard. Hauser was accused by some research assistants of  handling his data in biased ways that allowed for the confirmation of his hypotheses. So cheating happens even in academic contexts, where "meathead athletes" rarely find themselves.
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Maybe you think cheating is the domain of certain people-- that is, certain Type A personalities that attempt to succeed by any means necessary? You'd be wrong again.  

Recent research suggests that, when the conditions are right, we are all capable of cheating. This research was conducted by a team at Harvard led by Lisa Shu, Max Bazerman, and Francesca Gino. The authors of this work, predicted that in permissive environments (wherein there aren't a lot of ways to be caught cheating) people tend to cheat and also tend to justify this cheating through moral disengagement.

So, what is moral disengagement exactly? Well, the authors reasoned that it is uncomfortable to engage in behaviors that conflict with one's values, and since cheating behavior is associated with dishonesty, and dishonesty is against most people's values... you get the picture: cheating makes you feel uncomfortable about yourself. However, when one engages in cheating in a permissive environment (e.g., an environment where no one enforces rule violations), the quickest way to feel better about cheating is to change your attitudes about the morality of the cheating behavior. Basically, a person cheats in a permissive environment and rationalizes that behavior as not immoral (e.g., by forgetting that cheating isn't allowed, by saying that everybody else was engaging in the behavior, by suggesting that the cheating was for "the greater good," etc...).

In the studies themselves, the authors found that putting hundreds of regular people (people just like you and I) in a permissive environment--where no one would know they were cheating--not only led those participants to cheat more, it also led to more moral disengagement. More specifically, participants in permissive environments were less likely to remember aspects of the honor code they read before the task that discouraged cheating and more likely to justify the cheating behavior as necessary.

Knowing this, what can we learn about A-Roid, Sonnen, Hauser, and the other prominent individuals whose cheating has become public knowledge? First, know that the immoral actions of these individuals do not suggest personality or character flaws, more accurately, the cheating suggests that these individuals were all in permissive environments. This is particularly true of baseball in 2003, when the home run was being overvalued and there was no drug testing. Second, it's likely that many of the athletes using steroids or cheating in other ways won't own up or apologize for their cheating-- at least in the honest and humble way we'd all like.

People expect Barry Bonds--with all the evidence suggesting he used steroids--to admit that he broke the rules and I just don't see that happening, not without excuses and other justifications for why using steroids at the time was justified. This is especially true because if Bonds did indeed use performance enhancing drugs, he is likely to have practiced years of moral disengagement.

Does this post change any of your opinions about cheating and cheaters? Let us know in the comments


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