Aunt Becky Goes to Jail: Revisiting the College Admissions Scandal

Although we have blogged about the Varsity Blues admissions scandal before, actress Lori Loughlin (“Aunt Becky” of “Full House” fame) and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli just entered guilty pleas to charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and were sentenced to two months and five months in prison, respectively. It seems an appropriate time to revisit the scandal.

Perhaps it is because when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, but to us at Ethics Unwrapped it appears that this little soap opera reinforces the lesson that behavioral ethics is a very important topic to study. Behavioral ethics, of course, is not normative. It does not address how a particular ethical dilemma should be resolved. Rather, it is descriptive, addressing how and why people make the ethical and unethical choices that they do.

We believe that Loughlin and Giannulli did not need to take a philosophy course and read more about utilitarianism or deontology or virtue ethics to know that it was wrong to pay $500,000 to execute a fraudulent scheme to get their daughters into a college they were not qualified to enter. They produced false documents that made it appear that their daughters were successful athletes (they weren’t) who were worthy of admission to USC under the lower standards applied to athletes. They knew USC officials were receiving bribes to execute their part of the scheme. There is no subtly here.

Let us reiterate some lessons that we who teach behavioral ethics commonly try to emphasize.

White-collar criminals seldom go to jail because they are unaware that what they are doing is wrong. Fraud, bribery, insider trading, embezzlement and the rest do not involve issues that only trained philosophers from Oxford University can suss out. Neither Giannulli nor Loughlin tried to claim (nor could they have plausibly done so) that what they were doing was in any universe an ethically fine thing to do. In retrospect, it is plain as day to Loughlin and Giannulli that they were committing serious wrongs.

Most white-collar criminals view themselves as good people and commit wrongs only when they can convince themselves that they can do this bad thing but still be a good person. This ability to simultaneously think of oneself as a good person while doing a bad thing typically involves rationalizations, which humans are very good at confabulating. A classic rationalization which seems to have been at play in this case is altruistic cheating. The evidence is clear that people are more likely to give themselves permission to lie, cheat or steal if they can tell themselves that they are doing it for someone else—in this case their wonderful children. Loughlin said at sentencing: “I thought I was acting out of love for my children.”

This story has holes, because, as the judge pointed out during sentencing, Loughlin and Giannelli led a “fairy-tale life.”

Yet you stand before me a convicted felon, and for what? For the inexplicable desire to grab more. To have whatever prestige and instant gratification that comes from being able to show off the admission of your daughters to a preferred university.

The judge was well aware that the parents did indeed benefit from their scheme, but the self-serving bias enabled them to tell themselves that they were doing it only for their children.

Moral emotions play a huge role in human ethical decisionmaking. Most people do the right thing most of the time because they would feel guilty if they did not. Also, they wish to avoid the embarrassment and shame that they would feel if their misdeeds were uncovered. These inner-directed emotions have reciprocals—the outer-directed negative emotions of anger, contempt, and disgust that people feel toward wrongdoers. The judge clearly felt those emotions toward Loughlin and Giannulli as he sentenced them, and large swathes of the American public did as well.

We often quote psychologists David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo, who wrote:

One answer can be found in a simple gut check.  When faced with a moral decision, take a few seconds to pause and listen to your inner voices.  Is there a hint of guilt, a hint of shame, a gut feeling of unease?  If so, don’t ignore it.

Too bad Aunt Becky did not take this advice. Ms. Loughlin said at sentencing: “I ignored my intuition and allowed myself to be swayed from my moral compass.”

All of us should work hard to develop our moral imagination. This involves simply being thoughtful, reflective, and perhaps even a bit creative in considering the consequences of our actions. We do wrong when our actions harm people or other subjects of moral worth. One of the most obvious aspects of the wrong here is the impact it had upon more qualified students who were denied a spot at U.S.C. because the Loughlin-Giannulli daughters had taken them. Given the facts, those students who were disadvantaged were necessarily less wealthy than the Loughlin-Giannulli girls. At sentencing, Loughlin said that she now understood that the scheme helped exacerbate the inequality existing in our society. That realization came a little bit late in the day.

Character is overrated. While character is undeniably important and Mother Teresa could be reliably counted on to act more ethically than, say, Bernie Madoff, it is also overrated. Humans are creatures of bounded ethicality. Most of us want to be good people. And we act ethically most of the time. But all of us are also subject to social and organizational pressures, cognitive heuristics and biases, and various situational factors that make it difficult for good people to do the right thing all of the time. Ms. Loughlin’s attorney said that the conduct was “completely out of character” for her. And that is easy to believe. It’s something you hear at the sentencing of pretty much every white-collar criminal. In pretty much the biggest criminal antitrust case of all time: “The individual defendants were almost universally described by their attorneys as upstanding citizens, community leaders, church vestrymen, Little League Organizers.” (Fuller)

Character is a wonderful thing, but it is no guarantee that we cannot be overwhelmed by the impediments to moral decision making that we study in behavioral ethics. As philosopher Jonathan Glover says: “There are two truths. One is that people with different characters respond very differently to moral crises. There is a difference between those who go along with murder and those who do not….However, the sense of moral identity does not always hold people back from doing terrible things. It may fail in several ways.”

Wealth, fame, and power can breed a morally unhealthy sense of entitlement. Loughlin and Giannulli led a “fairy tale life,” according to Judge Gorton. And he was right. They had it all—good lucks, wealth, fame. But in an interesting study by Piff and colleagues, psychologists divided cars up into quintiles, running from the cheapest, crappiest cars to the fanciest and most expensive. Then they sat at a crosswalk in California to see how various drivers would react when encountering a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Under California law, the pedestrian has the right-of-way. Every single driver of the cheapest cars properly gave way to the pedestrians. But nearly 50% of the drivers of fancy, expensive cars did not. These drivers likely did not consciously say to themselves: “I am powerful. I am rich. I am important. I don’t have to give way to some random pedestrian.” But they acted as if that is what they were thinking. Loughlin and Giannulli were certainly subject to this sense of entitlement, and it appears to have had an impact on their decision making.

Bottom line: We agree with Tomlin and colleagues that “improvement [in ethics education] may be realized by shifting away from traditional ethics toward curricula that focus on behavioral ethics.” This blog post has presented five lessons that may be coming a little late for Aunt Becky. But then, it’s never too late to improve on one’s ethical behavior.

 

Resources

Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (Routledge, forthcoming 2021)

David DeSteno & Piercarlo Valdesolo, Out of Character (2011).

John G. Fuller, The Gentleman Conspirators: The Story of the Price-Fixers in the Electrical Industry (1962).

Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (2d ed. 2012)

Mariah Haas & Tyler McCarthy, “Lori Loughlin, Mossimo Giannulli sentenced in college admissions scandal case,” Fox News, Aug. 21, 2020, at https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/lori-loughlin-mossimo-giannulli-sentenced-college-admissions-scandal.

Mark Johnson, Morality for Humans (2014).

Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination (1993).

Mark Morales &  Dakin Andone, “Lori Loughlin sentenced to 2 months in prison in college admission scam. Her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, got 5 months,” CNN, Aug. 21, 2020, at https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/21/us/lori-loughlin-sentencing-college-admissions-scam/index.html.

Paul Piff et al., “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” PNAS, 109:11 4086 (2012).

K.A. Tomlin et al., “Are Students Blind to Their Ethical Blind Spots? An Exploration of Why Ethics Education Should Focus on Self-Perception Biases,” Journal of Management Education 41(4): 59-574.

 

Videos:

Behavioral ethics:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/intro-to-behavioral-ethics.

Bounded ethicality: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/bounded-ethicality.

Deontology: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/deontology.

Moral emotions: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/moral-emotions.

Moral imagination: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/moral-imagination.

Rationalizations: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/rationalizations.

Self-serving bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias.

Subjects of moral worth: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/subject-moral-worth.

Utilitarianism: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/utilitarianism.

Virtue Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/virtue-ethics

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