Conformity Bias

Conformity bias refers to our tendency to take cues for proper behavior in most contexts from the actions of others rather than exercise our own independent judgment.

Discussion Questions

1. Can you think of a time when you did something just because everyone else was doing it—even when it didn’t feel quite right to you? Do you regret it now?

2. It was recently observed that “cheating is contagious.” Does that sound true to you? Why or why not? If it is true, why might this be the case?

3. Loyalty is generally considered a good quality. When a group to which you owe loyalty seems to be making a decision that seems unethical to you, how should you go about trying to balance your loyalty to the group against your own ethical integrity? Have you had an experience like that? If so, how did you resolve it?

4. Can you explain how “groupthink” works? Can you think of a time when you have been subject to groupthink?

5. In the Harry Potter books, Albus Dumbledore told Harry: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” Do you have advice for people regarding how they can muster such bravery? Any personal experience to share?

6. How can an organization that wants its employees to make decisions in accordance with their own moral compass encourage them to do so?

Case Studies

German Police Battalion 101

During the Holocaust, more than a third of Nazi Germany’s Jewish victims never boarded deportation trains and did not die in gas chambers. Jewish men, women, and children were murdered near their homes in surrounding fields and forests by German police forces and their local helpers. Historians estimate that these so-called mobile killing units shot almost 2 million people during World War II. After the war, when some of the shooters and their commanders were put on trial, they claimed that they had to follow orders. Decades later, however, historians studying the interrogation files of one of these police battalions made a startling discovery. Not only did many ordinary Germans participate in the mass murder of Jews, they did so voluntarily.

In his book on one group of reserve policemen from the German city Hamburg, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, historian Christopher Browning shows that while the men were expected to follow orders when it came to killing civilians, they could have refused to do so. In July 1942, before their induction into the mass shooting of civilians in the small Polish town of Józefów, their commander gave battalion members a choice. If any of the men were “not up to the task,” they would be assigned to do “other duties,” such as guarding or transportation. When given the opportunity to opt out, only a very small number of men did. Even though this option remained in the months that followed, the majority of reserve policemen chose to kill—to do the “dirty work” even if just for a short time before being relieved of duty—rather than separate themselves from their unit by refusing to murder civilians.

Most of these ordinary, middle-aged German men became willing, although not enthusiastic, killers. A small minority consistently excused themselves from the task at hand. Those that killed, Browning argues, did so because of “the pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out… [The] act of stepping out…meant leaving one’s comrades and admitting that one was ‘too weak’ or ‘cowardly’.”

Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think ordinary men would become willing killers? What was the role of conformity bias in the situation described above? Explain.

2. Although conformity bias refers to our own tendency to take behavioral cues from the actions of others around us, in what ways do you think conformity was actively encouraged by the political climate or police forces leading the volunteers? Explain.

3. In hindsight, it is clear to see the wrongdoing of the actions of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. But given the number of men who willingly killed their Jewish neighbors, the decision to opt out may have been more complicated than simply being “not up to the task.” Beyond conformity bias, what other cognitive biases or situational pressures may have contributed to these men’s decision to kill? Explain. How do you think the men could have made different choices?

4. Do you think this dynamic is specific to a militarized culture? Why or why not? In what other contexts do you think conformity bias could play a significant role in shaping people’s behavior? Explain.

5. Can you think of examples in other parts of the world or historical periods in which conformity bias may have played a similar role in causing harm on a wide scale? Explain.

6. This case study illustrates an extreme example of the negative effects of conformity bias. On a more routine basis in your own life, in what situations do you think you might encounter conformity bias? Explain. Do you think our tendency to conform could ever produce positive effects? Why or why not?

Bibliography

Something Fishy at the Paralympics

Some of sports’ most inspiring and heart-warming stories have come from the Special Olympics (for athletes with intellectual disabilities) and the Paralympics (for athletes with intellectual impairments and visual or physical disabilities). The Paralympic games are held in parallel with the Olympics every four years and have become a very big deal.  Sports Illustrated reports that “Paralympic sport has grown into big business, with countries and sponsors pouring in millions of dollars to fund and promote athletes whose stories highlight the best of humanity.”[1] Australian Paralympians are sometimes provided “tens of thousands of dollars in government funding and other perks, including college scholarships, vehicles, and housing.”[2] In the 2020 Paralympics, U.S. athletes were slated to receive $37,500 for each gold medal they won.

Unfortunately, sometimes Paralympians cheat much like regular Olympians have been known to do—they take illicit drugs[3] or they drive their blood pressure up (“boosting”) to drive heart rate and improve performance.[4] And, unsurprisingly, the Russians systematically cheat in the Paralympics just as they do in the traditional Olympics.[5] But the most significant cheating involves gaming the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC’s) classification system.

The IPC classifies the disabilities of competitors in order to provide a structure for competition. Fair competition thrives only if athletes have similar levels of disabilities, so athletes are grouped into classes based on “how much their impairment affects fundamental activities in each specific sport and discipline.”[6]

Obviously, by pretending to have a more serious disability than they actually do, athletes could convince officials to group them with athletes of lesser abilities.  And there is evidence that this has happened.  For example, among the wrongdoing[7]:

  • Swimmers tape their arms for days, removing the tape just before classification. Because of the taping, they are unable to fully extend their arms.
  • Athletes arrive for the classification in a wheelchair when they do not otherwise use wheelchairs, or wearing braces that they normally do not wear.
  • Athletes submerge in cold water or roll in snow soon before classification to worsen muscle tone.
  • Athletes intentionally perform below their ability (“tanking”) in assessment races.
  • Remarkably, even the shortening and removal of limbs has reportedly occurred.

The most infamous example of Paralympic cheating was by Spain’s basketball team at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics: none of the 12 players was mentally disabled as represented.[8] Recently several Paralympians, especially Para-swimmers, have claimed that cheating the classification system is “epidemic.”[9]

After the Spanish basketball team was finally punished in 2017, the IPC removed basketball as a Paralympic sport until officials could prove to the IPC’s satisfaction that they had the classification problem under control.[10]

And, after believable allegations of widespread classification cheating among Australian Paralympians,[11] Australia has launched an online course that is mandatory for all its Paralympic athletes. The course outlines the classification process and requirements for all staff, coaches and athletes, explains penalties for noncompliance, and trains everyone on ethical decision making.[12]

At this time, the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, along with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether or not the increased visibility (and awareness) of Paralympic cheating changes the way these games are played in the future remains to be seen.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are you surprised to learn that some of these inspiring Paralympians are cheating? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think some Paralympians cheat?
  3. What psychological biases, social pressures or rationalizations might these athletes employ to support their decision to cheat? Explain.
  4. Why do we seem to have cheating in the Paralympics, but not the Special Olympics?
    1. Can the video on “incentive gaming” shed some light on this question?
  5. The coach who recruited the 2000 Spanish Paralympic basketball team has reportedly built a fortune by collecting state money aimed to support disabled athletes.[13] Does the self-serving bias play a role in motivating cheating? How so? By the coaches? By the athletes? Explain.
  6. It has been reported that the consciences of the 12 non-disabled semi-professional Spanish basketball players who entered the Sydney Paralympics of 2000 (and won the gold medal) were eased by the President of Spain’s Federation for Mentally Disabled Sports. He told them that fake Paralympians were commonplace in every sport at the Paralympics.[14] Does this sound like the conformity bias in action? Why or why not?
    1. Is this assertion defensible intellectually, or is it just a massive rationalization?
  7. It has been suggested that cheating by athletes in the Paralympics reinforces a stereotype held by many that people often pretend to be disabled in order to qualify for government payments and are therefore cheats?[15] Is reinforcement of this false narrative a damaging result of the cheating scandal? Why or why not?
    1.  Do you think this negative outcome was foreseen by the wrongdoers?
    2. Can you think of other collateral impacts?
  8. It has been argued that because the Paralympics are about winning (just like all sports) and that sometimes people in other sports cheat, it is no big deal that Paralympians cheat. Indeed, “[s]ome Paralympians and disability-rights speakers take doping scandals as positive news. They say it proves disabled people can achieve the same things as anyone else, including cheating. People, they argue, can identify more with a role model who has made mistakes.”[16] Do you find this a convincing argument? Explain.
  9. Paralympian gold medal winner Bethany Woodward gave back her gold medal in the relays because one of her teammates was insufficiently disabled and therefore gave her team an unfair advantage. Woodward said, “Paralympic sport is about disabled people pushing themselves and overcoming their disability. Handing back this medal will mean all the medals I won are to do with me, my cerebral palsy and my strength.”[17] This act has been mocked by Jim Moore, who wrote: “Para sport is either about inspiration porn, and giving ‘special people’ a little something to do in between putting us all back in a box. Or it’s about what all other sport is about: winning.”[18] Do you agree with Moore? Do you admire Woodward? Both? Neither? Support your position.
  10. Athletes like Bethany Woodward and U.S. Para-swimmer Jessica Long have been trying to call attention to cheating in the Paralympics. But they have been criticized by fellow Para-athletes for causing a furor that threatens to tear the sport apart and thereby damage it irrevocably.[19] Some think that Woodward and Long should just shut up. Do you? Why or why not?
  11. Are the steps being taken by the IPC (banning basketball until the sport can clean up its act) and individual countries like Australia (with its online training course) necessary? Are they sufficient? Explain your reasoning.

Bibliography

[1] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

[2] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

[3] Roger Collier, Most Paralympians Inspire, But Others Cheat, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Sept. 9, 2008, at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2527388/.

[4] Kevin Carpenter, The Dark Side of the Paralympics: Cheating Through “Boosting,” LawInSport, Aug. 27, 2012, at https://www.lawinsport.com/more/blogs/kevin-carpenter/item/the-dark-side-of-the-paralympics-cheating-through-boosting.

[5] Rebecca Ruiz, Russia Is Banned from Paralympics, Again, for Doping, New York Times, Jan. 29, 2018, at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/29/sports/paralympics-russia-doping.html.

[6] International Paralympic Committee, November 2015 IPC Athlete Classification Code (2015).

[7] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

[8] Simon Tomlinson, Are These the Biggest Cheats in Sporting History? Staggering Story of the Healthy Spanish Basketball Team Who Pretended to Be Mentally Handicapped to Win Paralympic Gold, The Daily Mail, Oct. 14, 2013, at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2458715/Spanish-basketball-team-pretended-disabled-win-Paralympic-gold.html

[9] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

[10] Craig Lord, Jessica Long on the Poison Pool in Paralympic Swimming Where ‘Classification Cheats Prosper,’ Swimming World Magazine, March 5, 2020, at https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/jessica-long-on-the-poison-pool-in-paralympic-swimming-where-classification-cheats-prosper/.

[11] Scot Spits, Misrepresenting Disability on a Par with Doping: Paralympics, Australia, Sydney Morning Herald, July 31, 2019, at https://www.smh.com.au/sport/misrepresenting-disability-on-a-par-with-doping-paralympics-australia-20190731-p52cm2.html.

[12] Chris Dutton, Paralympics Australia Launches Crackdown on Cheats, Canberra Times, May 29, 2019, at https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6188557/para-sport-launch-cheating-crackdown/#gsc.tab=0.

[13] Alex Dunham, ‘Stop Playing Well, They’ll Know You’re Not Disabled,’ The Local, Oct. 11, 2013, at https://www.thelocal.es/20131011/stop-playing-well-theyll-know-youre-not-disabled.

[14] Alex Dunham, ‘Stop Playing Well, They’ll Know You’re Not Disabled,’ The Local, Oct. 11, 2013, at https://www.thelocal.es/20131011/stop-playing-well-theyll-know-youre-not-disabled.

[15] James Moore, The Paralympics Cheating Scandal Proves that British Para-sport is a Victim of Its Own Success, The Independent, Oct. 31, 2017, at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/paralympics-cheating-scandal-british-athletes-success-disabilities-classification-a8029866.html.

[16] BBC, Paralympics: Olympic Implications, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/sport/aspects/paralympics.shtml.

[17] Paul Grant, ‘I’m Handing Back My Medal’: Is Paralympic Sport Classification Fit for Purpose?, BBC.com, Sept. 18, 2017, at https://www.bbc.com/sport/disability-sport/41253174.

[18] James Moore, Why is Anyone Shocked that Paralympians Have Been Accused of Cheating?, The Independent, Sept. 23, 2017, at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/paralympics-para-athletes-doping-cheating-classification-paralympians-a7962796.html.

[19] Robert Sanchez, Dirty Pool at the Paralympics, Sports Illustrated, March 2020, at https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/03/03/paralympiccheating.

The Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scandal

Major League Baseball (MLB) fosters an extremely competitive environment.  Tens of millions of dollars in salary (and endorsements) can hang in the balance, depending on whether a player performs well or poorly.  Likewise, hundreds of millions of dollars of value are at stake for the owners as teams vie for World Series glory.  Plus, fans, players and owners just want their team to win. And everyone hates to lose!

It is no surprise, then, that the history of big-time baseball is dotted with cheating scandals ranging from the Black Sox scandal of 1919 (“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”), to Gaylord Perry’s spitter, to the corked bats of Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa, to the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Now, the Houston Astros have joined this inglorious list.

Catchers signal to pitchers which type of pitch to throw, typically by holding down a certain number of fingers on their non-gloved hand between their legs as they crouch behind the plate.  It is typically not as simple as just one finger for a fastball and two for a curve, but not a lot more complicated than that.

In September 2016, an Astros intern named Derek Vigoa gave a PowerPoint presentation to general manager Jeff Luhnow that featured an Excel-based application that was programmed with an algorithm. The algorithm was designed to (and could) decode the pitching signs that opposing teams’ catchers flashed to their pitchers. The Astros called it “Codebreaker.”  One Astros employee referred to the sign-stealing system that evolved as the “dark arts.”[1]

MLB rules allowed a runner standing on second base to steal signs and relay them to the batter, but the MLB rules strictly forbade using electronic means to decipher signs.  The Astros’ “Codebreaker” blatantly violated these rules.

According to Wall Street Journal writer Jared Diamond:

The way Codebreaker worked was simple:  Somebody would watch an in-game live feed and log the catcher’s signals into the spreadsheet, as well as the type of pitch that was actually thrown.  With that information, Codebreaker determined how the signs corresponded with different pitches.  Once decided, that information would be communicated through intermediaries to a baserunner, who would relay them to the hitter.

Starting around June 2017, the system was embellished by Astros players.  They started watching a live game feed on a monitor near the dugout and then would bang on a trash can to communicate the coming pitch to the batter.  The “banging scheme” lasted through the 2017 World Series, which the Astros won over the Los Angeles Dodgers.[2]

This all occurred despite the fact that late in the 2017 season, MLB caught the Boston Red Sox relaying signs from their video room to an Apple watch worn by a trainer sitting in the dugout. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Red Sox and issued a strong warning to all teams against illegal electronic sign-stealing.[3]

However, the Astros’ scheme lasted into the 2018 season in away games as well as home games, despite the fact that other teams were very suspicious that the Astros were stealing signs. Other teams often changed their own signs several times a game in an attempt to thwart the Astros suspected sign stealing.  An executive for an opposing team was quoted as saying “The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their asses off for three or four years.  Everybody knew it.”[4]  Indeed, many teams had complained to MLB’s executives about the Astros’ cheating. Some suspect the cheating continued through the 2019 season although others think not, and MLB found no convincing evidence of it.[5]

Sign-stealing might not seem like it would give a big advantage.  After all, even if a batter knows that a certain pitch is coming, he still has to hit it.  And it is not easy hitting a 100-mph fastball or a major league-caliber slider, even if you know it’s coming.  Nonetheless, the advantage is substantial.  According to the Washington Nationals’ pitching coach Paul Menhart, “It’s the worst feeling in the world stepping on that mound and having an idea that the hitter knows what’s coming.  It’s one of the most unnerving feelings.  You feel helpless.  You just get ticked off to the point where you lose total focus and confidence.”[6]  The Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series over the favored Astros. They won, at least in part, by assuming that the Astros would be attempting to steal their signs, and putting into place elaborate countermeasures, including multiple sets of signs for each pitcher.[7]

There is no question that many of the Astros players were actively involved in the scheme.  The Astros manager, AJ Hinch, clearly knew about it.  There is substantial, though perhaps not airtight evidence, that General Manager (GM) Rob Luhnhow also knew of the scheme.  Carlos Beltran, a Hall-of-Fame caliber player near the end of his 20-year playing career was a leader in the scheme.  And bench coach Alex Cora was a primary instigator.  Owner Jim Crane appears not to have known of the dark arts being practiced by his club.[8]

The scandal became public on November 12, 2019, when former Astros’ pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle in an interview published in “The Athletic.”[9] Although some current MLB players praised Fiers for coming forward about the scandal, other players criticized him for violating baseball’s presumed “code of silence,” also called the “clubhouse code.”[10]  MLB then launched an investigation that granted the Astros players immunity in return for their fessing up. Commissioner Rob Manfred soon issued a nine-page report that found that most of the Astros players knew of the scheme and many participated in it. The report said that manager Hinch knew of the scheme and that GM Luhnow should have prevented it.[11]  Commissioner Manfred suspended both Hinch and Luhnow, who were quickly fired by Astros’ owner Crane.  MLB fined the Astros $5 million, and stripped the club of its first- and second-round draft picks in both 2020 and 2021.[12]

There was other fall-out, too.  Beltran, who had just been hired as manager of the New York Mets, was fired.  Cora, who had subsequently become the manager of the Boston Red Sox, was also fired.  In late April 2020, Manfred found that the Red Sox had done some illicit sign-stealing in the 2018 season. Surprisingly, though, he concluded that manager Cora and most of the Red Sox players did not know about it. Manfred imposed a modest punishment on the Red Sox organization in the form of a lost draft pick. But again, none of the players who participated in the scheme were penalized.[13]

Manfred’s decision not to punish players was harshly criticized by many. He claimed that granting immunity in exchange for information was the best way to quickly discover the truth. This approach was praised by some,[14] but other observers were unconvinced.[15] He also argued that it was difficult to determine how much advantage the cheating scandal had given the Astros. However, many major league players – including the game’s best player, Mike Trout – suggested that they would love to know what pitch was coming.[16] Manfred also claimed that with so many players involved to different degrees, it would be difficult to apportion blame appropriately. Additionally, MLB had stated in its 2017 warning about sign-stealing that it would hold management responsible for violations.[17]

Some suggested that Manfred was simply trying to minimize damage to MLB’s image. The game got a black eye from the PED scandal, which is brought back into the spotlight every year as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and others are refused entry to the baseball Hall of Fame by sportswriters who insist on punishing their cheating in ways that MLB never did. And Astros players such as Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Justin Verlander will probably have a better chance to enter the Hall of Fame than if they had been suspended for cheating.[18]

The damage done by the Astros is significant.  Former major leaguer Doug Glanville said the Astros’ “selfish act makes everyone question the validity of the future and the truth of the past,” concluding that MLB now faces an “existential crisis.”[19]  Veteran catcher Stephen Vogt said, “The integrity of our game is what we have, and now that’s been broken.”[20]

The impact on the Astros and its players, beyond a new manager and general manager, is as yet unknown.  The Astros worry that opposing pitchers will feel some degree of freedom to throw at Astros hitters.  A former major league pitcher, Mike Bolsinger, sued the Astros. He claimed that a particularly bad outing he had was caused by the Astros’ cheating, and that it effectively ended his MLB career.[21]  The effect of their cheating ways can be seen in non-professional baseball, too, with some little leagues banning the use of “Astros” as a team name.[22] Regardless of league level, gaming the system to advantage one’s own team is not the kind of play that, in the long run, makes for good sport.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the Astros began using the “Dark Arts”?

[See videos on the self-serving bias (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias) and framing. (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/framing)]

  1. Shortly before the Astros began their sign-stealing scheme, the team’s database was hacked by Chris Correa, the rival St. Louis Cardinals’ scouting director. He was later sentenced to 46 months in prison.[23]
    1. How might this transgression by Correa have helped motivate the Astros’ decision to cheat?
    2. Could it have given the Astros a rationalization for their own cheating? What do you think that rationalization would be?

[See video on rationalizations. (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/rationalizations)]

  1. How much responsibility would you place on the players? On the manager?  On the general manager?  On the owner? Explain your reasoning.
  2. One writer asked: “Given an open road, a sports car and the assurance no law enforcement would be present, how fast would you drive?”[24] He then noted the relative lack of enforcement by MLB, despite widespread rumors and complaints about the Astros’ (and perhaps some other clubs’) illegal sign-stealing. Would more surveillance, of the type MLB used in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs when watchdogs were placed in baseball clubhouses during the games, have made a difference? Why or why not?
  3. Although some MLB players applauded Mike Fiers for coming forward about the scandal, others criticized him for violating baseball’s supposed “code of silence.”[25]
    1. Is that code common in professions or organizations other than MLB (and the Mafia)? Support your answer with examples.
    2. Is it part of the problem? Why or why not?
    3. How might it be reformed or even ended?

[See videos on the conformity bias https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/conformity-bias and In-group/outgroup. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group]

  1. In 2017 “The Athletic” reported that small groups of Astros players expressed misgivings about the cheating. One player approached Carlos Beltran, who was a ring-leader in the scheme and a 20-year veteran with a Hall of Fame-caliber career behind him. Beltran “disregarded [the appeal] and steamrolled everybody.”  “Where do you go if you’re a young, impressionable player with the Astros and this guy says, ‘We’re going to do this.’  What do you do?”[26] What does this revelation tell us about obedience to authority? [See videos on obedience to authority.  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority; https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/obedience-to-authority]
  2. On the other hand, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said: “We didn’t feel scared of Beltran; we didn’t feel intimidated. He was the nicest guy we could ever have. He was the best teammate we could ever have.  Beltran was obviously a leader of the clubhouse, but we all had a say in everything we were doing in there.”[27]  How does this affect your conclusions on the previous question?
  3. In a press conference, Astros’ owner Jim Crane said: “Our players should not be punished for these actions. These are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders.”[28]  It does appear that GM Luhnhow did know generally of the scheme, that field manager Hinch definitely knew about it (and did not like it) but did little or nothing to stop it, and that bench coach Alex Cora and team elder Carlos Beltran were active leaders of the scheme.  Does that absolve the other players? Why or why not?
  4. Former Astro J.D. Davis later explained: “I was a rookie, and I was going up and down the system, and I was fighting for my life. … As a 24-year-old at the time, I was pretty star-struck at the time being around some of the veteran guys and being around the big-league clubhouse and everything. I had never been part of a major-league clubhouse.  Maybe what they did was the norm, I have no idea.  I had never been in another big-league clubhouse.”[29]  Does this sound like the conformity bias in action, or just another excuse? Explain your reasoning.
  5. There were clearly Astros players who were uncomfortable with the cheating. Why didn’t they speak out?  What about the Astros players, other than Fiers, who left the club knowing of the scheme, but never reported it?  Why didn’t they speak out?

[See videos on moral muteness  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-muteness and the Giving Voice to Values video series. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/series/giving-voice-to-values]

  1. It is perfectly legal to watch the opposing teams’ pitcher and catcher with the naked eye, even when you’re a runner standing on second base with a primo view of the catchers’ signals. And it’s legal to try to detect those signals and send them to your teammate in the batter’s box in an attempt to give him an edge.  Is the use of electronic means to do the detecting so close to the traditional means that it doesn’t seem so bad? Explain.
    1. How might this line of reasoning be influences by the slippery slope?

[See videos on incrementalism. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/incrementalism https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/incrementalism]

  1. Why didn’t MLB punish the players who were involved?
    1. Should the players have been punished as well as the manager and general manager? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think the managers were allowed to keep their share of the World Series prize money ($400,000 each)? Is this fair? Why or why not?
  1. Did Rob Manfred take a deontological or a utilitarian approach to investigating and punishing the Astros? Was it the best approach? Explain your reasoning.

[See videos on deontology https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/deontology and utilitarianism. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/utilitarianism]

  1. In the wake of the scandal, Pete Rose – who is one of the best players in history and was banned from the game because he gambled on baseball – asked for reinstatement.[30] Does the failure to punish the Astros’ players provide grounds for mercy toward Rose? Why or why not?
  2. Commissioner Manfred refused to strip the Astros of their championship, saying: “Once you go down that road of changing what happens on the field, I just don’t know how you decide where you stop.”[31] Do you think the Astros should be stripped of their championship? Explain your reasoning.

Bibliography

[1] Jared Diamond, ‘Dark Arts’ and ‘Codebreaker’: The Origins of the Houston Astros Cheating Scheme, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 7, 2020, at https://www.wsj.com/articles/houston-astros-cheating-scheme-dark-arts-codebreaker-11581112994.

[2] Id.

[3] Tom Verducci, Why MLB Issued Historic Punishment to Astros for Sign Stealing, Sports Illustrated, Jan. 13, 2020, at https://www.si.com/mlb/2020/01/13/houston-astros-cheating-punishment.

[4] Barry Svrluga & Dave Sheinin, The World Just Learned of the Astros’ Cheating. Inside Baseball, It was an Open Secret, Washington Post, Feb. 11, 2020, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/mlb/astros-cheating-open-secret/2020/02/11/1830154c-4c41-11ea-9b5c-eac5b16dafaa_story.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7]  Nick Moykin, Nationals Reportedly Knew of Astros Sign-Stealing Scandal During the World Series, WUSA, Feb. 12, 2020, at https://www.wusa9.com/article/sports/nationals-knew-astros-were-stealing-signs-during-world-series/65-b3ae89ef-58c3-4374-be49-ee591c38384c.

[8] Rob Manfred, Statement of the Commissioner, Jan. 13, 2020, at https://www.crawfishboxes.com/2020/1/13/21064270/mlb-commissioner-rob-manfreds-full-statement-on-the-houston-astros-sign-stealing-investigation.

[9] Ken Rosenthal & Evan Drellich, The Astros Stole Signs Electronically in 2017—Part of a Much Broader Issue for Major League Baseball, The Athletic, Nov. 12, 2019, at https://theathletic.com/1363451/2019/11/12/the-astros-stole-signs-electronically-in-2017-part-of-a-much-broader-issue-for-major-league-baseball/.

[10] Susan Slusser, A’s Mike Fiers Says He’s Received Death Threats, Plans to Keep Astros Ring, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 20, 2020, at https://www.sfchronicle.com/athletics/article/A-s-Mike-Fiers-I-ve-dealt-with-death-15071066.php.

[11] Manfred, supra note 8.

[12] Erik Boland, “Yankees Won’t Be Returning to the Scene of Astros’ Crime,” Newsday, May 14, 2020, at https://www.newsday.com/sports/baseball/yankees/astros-yankees-sign-stealing-scandal-minute-maid-park-1.44641481.

[13] Boston Herald Staff, “Calling Foul over MLB Report on Sox Sign-stealing Scandal,” Boston Herald, April 26, 2020, at https://www.bostonherald.com/2020/04/26/calling-foul-over-mlb-report-on-sox-sign-stealing-scandal/.

[14] Thomas Fox, The Astros Cheating Scandal and Compliance—Part 5: The Whistleblower and the Amnesty, Thomas Fox’s FCPA Compliance & Ethics Updates, Jan. 21, 2020, at https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/the-astros-cheating-scandal-and-55519/.

[15] Christopher L. Gasper, Players Should Be Punished Too in Baseball’s Sign-Stealing Scandal, MSN.com, Jan. 18, 2020, at https://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/mlb/players-should-be-punished-too-in-baseball-s-sign-stealing-scandal/ar-BBZ4tCM?fbclid=IwAR0znzAliQdUxJAbpO7v6wMlvL3txqWK6cwIpvmYGSWt3laBhA9hQ-1zI5A.

[16] Allen Kim, Angles Star Mike Trout Rips MLB for Astros Cheating Scandal, Said He ‘Lost Respect’ for Players, CNN, Feb. 17, 2020, at https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/17/us/houston-astros-mike-trout-spt-trnd/index.html.

[17] Dalton Johnson, Rob Manfred Explains Why He Didn’t Strip Astros’ World Series, Punish Players, NBC Sports, Feb. 16, 2020, at https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/athletics/rob-manfred-explains-why-he-didnt-strip-astros-world-series-punish-players.

[18] Howard Bryant, “Why the Houston Astros’ Cheating Scandal Could Be Worse for MLB than the Steroid Era,” ESPN, Mar. 8, 2020, at https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/28841940/why-houston-astros-cheating-scandal-worse-mlb-steroid-era.

[19] Doug Glanville, Baseball’s Existential Crisis, New York Times, Jan. 21, 2020, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/21/opinion/the-astros-cheating.html.

[20] Tyler Kepner, The Rise and Sudden Fall of the Houston Astros, New York Times, Jan. 18, 2010, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/18/sports/houston-astros-cheating.html.

[21] Nancy Armour, Pitcher Mike Bolsinger Says Cheating Houston Astros Changed Course of His Career, USA Today, Feb. 10, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/nancy-armour/2020/02/10/mike-bolsinger-sues-houston-astros-says-cheating-changed-his-career/4712164002/.

[22] Tim Daniels, California Little Leagues Ban Astros as Team Name After Cheating Scandal, Bleacherreport, Feb. 15, 2020, at https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2876498-california-little-leagues-ban-astros-as-team-name-after-cheating-scandal.

[23] Adam Wells, Chris Correa Sentenced to 46 Months for Hacking Astros’ Computer System, Bleacherreport.com, July 18, 2016, at https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2652751-chris-correa-sentenced-to-46-months-for-hacking-astros-computer-system.

[24] Gene Laques, Injured Parties, Defiant Execs and a Tainted Title: Houston Astros’ Sign-stealing Scandal Checks All the Boxes, USA Today, Jan. 15, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/gabe-lacques/2020/01/15/houston-astros-cheating-scandal-mlb/4465982002/.

[25] Susan Slusser, A’s Mike Fiers Says He’s Received Death Threats, Plans to Keep Astros Ring, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 20, 2020, at https://www.sfchronicle.com/athletics/article/A-s-Mike-Fiers-I-ve-dealt-with-death-15071066.php.

[26] Rosenthal & Drellich, supra note __.

[27] James Crabtree-Hannigan, Carlos Correa Denies Astros Were Intimidated by Carlos Beltran, Sporting News, Feb. 13, 2020, at https://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/carlos-correa-denies-astros-were-intimidated-by-carlos-beltran/1qids459hddeo1k53f8nabl8z6.

[28] Scott Davis, The Astros Said Their Cheating Scheme ‘Didn’t Impact the Game’ and Players Shouldn’t Be Held Accountable in a Cringeworthy Press Conference, Business Insider, Feb. 13, 2020, at https://www.businessinsider.com/jim-crane-astros-cheating-didnt-impact-game-press-conference-2020-2.

[29] Bob Nightengale, Former Astros Outfielders J.D. Davis, Jake Marisnick Apologize for Their Roles in the Sign-stealing Scandal, USA Today, Feb. 14, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/bob-nightengale/2020/02/14/former-astros-outfielder-jd-davis-ashamed-sign-stealing/4759911002/.

[30] Randy Miller, Pete Rose Feels Astros’ Cheating Worse Than His Bets, Questions Players Getting Off ‘Scot-free, NJ.com, https://www.nj.com/yankees/2020/01/pete-rose-feels-astros-cheating-worse-than-gambling-questions-players-getting-off-scot-free.html.

[31] John Perrotto, Rob Manfred Won’t Tolerate Retaliation Against Houston Astros, Feb. 17, 2020, at https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnperrotto/2020/02/17/rob-manfred-wont-tolerate-retaliation-against-houston-astros/#10a4a13f3b67.

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as conformity bias. Conformity bias refers to our tendency to take cues for proper behavior in most contexts from the actions of others rather than exercise our own independent judgment. Conformity bias may occur when we face peer pressure or are trying to fit into particular professional or social environments.

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts, watch Obedience to Authority and Role Morality. To learn a method to voice oneself when facing conformity bias, watch the GVV video series, especially GVV Pillar 6: Voice.

The case study on this page, “Reserve Police Battalion 101,” takes a look at the dangers of conformity bias in the context of the Holocaust, in which many ordinary German men aided willingly aided Nazi officers in murdering millions of Jews. For a related case study that explores the dangers of obedience to authority facing a Nazi officer, see “Stangl & the Holocaust.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: conformity bias, obedience to authority, and role morality.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

Asch, Solomon E. 2004. “Opinions and Social Pressure.” In Readings about The Social Animal (9th Edition), edited by Joshua Aronson and Elliot Aronson, 17-26. New York: Worth Publishers.

Browning, Lynnley. 2005. “How an Accounting Firm Went From Resistance to Resignation.” New York Times, August 28.

Esser, James K. and Joanne S. Lindoerfer. 1989. “Groupthink and the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident: Toward a Quantitative Case Analysis.” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 2 (3): 167-177.

Janis, Irving L. 1982. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (2nd Edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rowling, J.K. 1997. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic.

The latest teaching resource from Ethics Unwrapped is an article, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice, that describes the basics of behavioral ethics, introduces the videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples, and includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. It was published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

For more resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”

An article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?

A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department 
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

“Parents seldom accept as an excuse their child’s plea of “Hey, everyone else is doing it!” However, psychological studies demonstrate that those same parents, and everyone else, tend to take their cues for proper behavior in most social contexts from the actions of others. This pressure is called the conformity bias.

Psychologist Solomon Asch found that when he asked subjects to tell which of three lines is the same length as a fourth, no one had difficulty doing it unless they were placed in a group with Asch’s confederates who gave obviously wrong answers. Under those conditions, almost all of the subjects found it very painful to give the obviously correct answer in contradiction to the strangers’ wrong answers. In fact, most participants gave an obviously incorrect answer at least once during the study.

This bias to conform is much greater, of course, when the others in the group are not strangers but are co-employees or friends, or when the correct answer is not right there in black and white as it was in the Asch Study but is instead a subjective question like an ethical issue.

The impairment of individual decision-making known as “groupthink” – where people deciding in groups often make more extreme decisions than any individual member initially supports – can exacerbate the conformity bias. It can be reasonably argued that loyalty and groupthink helped Morton Thiokol employees to remain silent about known O-ring dangers that caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

An employee at the accounting firm KPMG challenged the ethics of tax shelters that the firm was selling. He received a simple e-mail that said: “You are either on the team or you are off the team.”

Well everyone wants to be on the team. We all realize loyalty is generally an important virtue. But it causes a pressure to conform and this pressure to conform, has been argued, helped cause Ford employees to sell the Ford Pinto despite awareness of its gas tank dangers, and helped A.H. Robins employees to continue to sell the Dalkon Shield contraceptive IUD despite knowing its ghastly medical consequences.

Psychological and organizational pressures can cause even people with good intentions to lie or otherwise act unethically. Good character, unfortunately, is not always sufficient. As Albus Dumbledore told Harry Potter, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.””

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