The Frontal Cortex

The Morality of Sports Fans

Like many Patriots fans, I’ve been suffering from an acute case of cognitive dissonance ever since I learned about Bill Belichick’s taping habits. On the one hand, I know cheating is wrong. On the other hand, winning sure feels good. The end result is that I deftly rationalize away the sin, and come up with all sorts of elaborate reasons why videotaping defensive signals doesn’t really matter. (Everybody does it. Well, everybody would do it if they were smart enough. The Pats would have beaten the Jets anyways. It was really the Jets fault for making their signals so damn obvious.)

But it turns out I’m not the only ethically dubious sports fan:

According to a 1999 study by psychologists at Murray State, a significant minority of fans–if guaranteed anonymity–would even support injuring an opposing player or coach.

How would Haidt explain my moral muddiness? Examples of cheating seem to reverse his social intuitionist model of moral decision-making, in which the emotional brain comes up with a visceral judgment which the rational “rider” then has to justify. When I think about the Pats, my competitive emotions don’t seem to really care about the scandal. Sure, it’s unfair, but my team benefited from the unfairness. My rational brain, however, is well aware that cheating is wrong, even if you’re cheating the New York Jets.


  1. #1 Jonathan
    September 21, 2007

    It seems like a form of loss aversion to me, except on a social scale. Humans are tribal animals, we work as a group to accomplish more than we could on our own. We sink or swim with our cohorts. Losing feels twice as bad as winning feels good, so you devalue anyone not a part of your group by half, or more. Not too long ago the OU Sooners were on their way to the championship. Everything seemed to be breaking right for them; it was a terrific season. That was, right up until the Big 12 championship. A loss to Wisconsin, and then loosing the bowl game completely negated the season for me. All those great victories turned to ash in my mouth.

    A somewhat more sinister version of this can be seen in Iraq. The US media constantly focuses on the 3000+ US casualties, but ignores the 1.2 million+ Iraqi civilian casualties. That’s because the soldiers are one of “us” and the Iraqis are one of “them.” American lives are being weighted more than two orders of magnitude heavier than Iraqi lives.

  2. #2 CanuckRob
    September 21, 2007

    I think this would be moral with respect to Haidt’s ideas if you view it as loyalty to the in-group. Since no one was hurt or treated unfairly (at least on your team) and it does involve haidt’s purity pillar it’s easy to justify that it is not immoral. And as you say it’s the Jets on damn fault for using obvious signals:) What puzzles me is why this is considered wrong when nobody objects to using game videos to prepare for an opponent.

  3. #3 gaddeswarup
    September 21, 2007

    Is the article mentioned above this?
    In any case, this post led me to Dan Wann who seems to have done a lot of interesting research on sports psychology. Thanks.

  4. #4 Webs
    September 22, 2007

    Jonathan: go check out the monkeysphere

    Is what Belichick did really cheating? Nearly every team in the NFL video taps the games and defensive signals. You can have two cameras running in the box upstairs. All Bill did was be a little creative by bringing one of the cameras to the field level, so that the scoreboard would be in the background as he caught the signal

    I would venture to guess he wasn’t aware of that rule though. IMO he cheated, but there is no need to make a scapegoat out of him.

    For the record I am a Bears fan, always have been, and don’t really care what happens to other teams 🙂

  5. #5 amybuilds
    September 24, 2007

    You think it’s hard explaining “moral muddiness” to yourself? Try explaining it to your kids.

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