The air is thick with schadenfreude as some of the wealthy and famous have been laid low by indictments in the ongoing admissions scandal that is rocking universities such as our own—the University of Texas at Austin.
Assuming (while realizing that to do so can make an ass out of you and me) that the news accounts and prosecutorial allegations are accurate, two overriding lessons of the scandal are: (1) It’s good to be rich, and (2) Parents love their children. These lessons are not exactly surprising, but they do explain why parents paid $1.2 million to have their non-soccer playing daughter recruited to play soccer at Yale, why other parents paid $500,000 to have their daughters recruited to join the crew at U.S.C even though they did not participate in crew, and why other parents paid $50,000 to have their child diagnosed with a fake learning disability so they could bribe a proctor to inflate a standardized test score.
As per usual, we at Ethics Unwrapped are most interested in ethical (and unethical) decision making. We try to suss out what people were thinking when they made the decisions they did. Among the key lessons of the scientific research in behavioral ethics is that most people wish to be good, but are creatures of bounded ethicality. We predict that most of the parents who were arrested this week thought of themselves as good people right up until they were arrested, and may still do so. The neighbors, friends and colleagues of the recently fired UT men’s tennis coach, Michael Center, have testified to his good character in local news interviews. If they are all good folks, how did this happen? It’s hard to know because few of the parents in this broad scandal have talked much. But here are some possibilities.
Rationalizations are the excuses we give ourselves for not living up to our own moral standards. They dull our sense of responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Humans are creative rationalizers and one of the most common categories of rationalization recognized by psychologists is “appeal to a higher loyalty.” These parents knew that they should not lie or cheat, but they also felt that their highest loyalty was to their children’s well-being. This made their cheating seem justified. Wouldn’t parents who truly loved their children do all they could for them? Isn’t that what good parents would do?
Besides, what these parents were doing may not have seemed that wrong to them. Because of the conformity bias, people tend to take their cues as to what is right and what is wrong from those around them, and there is substantial evidence that the admissions process, especially at elite universities, is hardly a meritocracy. If poor kids and minority kids are getting in because of affirmative action (and let us quickly editorialize: this scandal makes it clear that affirmative action is decidedly not the problem with college admissions), and if really rich kids like the Jared Kushners of the world are getting in because their parents are donating entire buildings, and if athletes get in just for being athletic, well then how bad can Photoshopping my kid’s face onto the body of a real tennis player be? As the mastermind of this operation, Rick Singer, explained to parents: there’s a front door to colleges (merit), a back door (donating a building), and he’d created a side door. Just another door. Everybody’s doing it.
Because a front door and a back door already exist, creation of a side door might not seem like much of a change. Lots of wrongdoing occurs because of incrementalism, the slippery slope. We get used to college admissions not being completely meritocratic in one way or another. It’s already OK for us to hire SAT tutors and college essay coaches that poor parents can’t afford. What’s the big deal about taking this next step? From that perspective, this seemingly crazy stuff might have seemed normal and acceptable to the parents desperate to get their children into an elite school
Overriding all this is the research showing that wealth and power corrode people’s moral compasses. Many studies show that the privileged act less ethically than the rest of us. They get their way in so many areas of life, they begin to feel that it is their due. Studies show that people driving expensive cars are less likely to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks than people driving less expensive cars. Rich people are less empathetic and compassionate toward people in distress. They are less adept at recognizing others’ emotions. If told that they may help themselves to candy in a bowl, but whatever is left over will be given to children, the wealthy will take more than others. They are more likely to endorse greed as good, to cheat in order to win a contest, and to negotiate unethically. People who are powerful are more likely to make moral decisions based on rights and self-interest rather than broader concepts like duties and obligations, caring and purity. Some studies show that children of wealthy people tend to be like their parents; whether they are in kindergarten or college, they tend to be more selfish than their peers.
Being wealthy is not a moral death sentence. Some of the best people we know are rich. But more than other people, the wealthy must guard against the selfish tendencies that, exacerbated by the self-serving bias, affect us all.
This admissions scandal may prove to be to academia what the Enron scandal was to business. It has already caused many of the schools directly involved in the scandal to make minor changes (like firing their tennis coach) and to promise more significant changes. If the scandal causes a major reexamination of admissions processes at colleges all across the nation, then perhaps some good can come from this moral tragedy.
Relevant Ethics Unwrapped Videos
Behavioral Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/bounded-ethicality
Bounded Ethicality: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/bounded-ethicality
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias
Self-Serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias
Nick Anderson, “From ‘Master Coach’ to a Bribery Probe: A College Consultant Who Went off the Rails,” Washington Post, March 12, 2019.
Devin Barrett & Matt Zapotosky, “FBI Accuses Wealthy Parents, Including Celebrities, in College-Entrance Bribery Scheme,” Washington Post March 12, 2019.
Brian Davis, “Texas Tennis Coach Michael Center Among Coaches Charged in Sweeping College Admissions Scheme,” Austin American-Statesman, March 12, 2019.
Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission (2006).
Dacher Keltner et al, “Power and Moral Leadership” in Moral Leadership (Deborah Rhode ed., 2006).
Jennifer Medina et al., “College Admissions Scandal: Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged,” New York Times, March 12, 2019.
Howard J. Ross, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Everyday Lives (2014).
Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017).
Ashley Wheillans et al., “Getting the Wealthy to Donate,” New York Times, May 14, 2017.