“Working the System” – Euphemisms Inflict Collateral Damage on Integrity

Operation Varsity Blues is just about in our rearview mirror. Most of the 56 people indicted in this college admissions scandal have pled guilty. Yesterday (May 21, 2020), the highest profile defendants, actress Lori Loughlin (“Aunt Becky” of the TV series Full House) and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, changed their not guilty pleas, agreeing to modest punishments. Loughlin faces two months in jail, a $150,000 fine, and 100 hours of community service. Giannulli faces 5 months in prison, a $250,000 fine, and 250 hours of community service.

The question remains why they (and all the other parents) did it. Why did they become involved in such a tawdry bribery scheme that helped their children, already born on third base, to edge toward home plate before the game even began? The Loughlin/Giannulli daughters’ faces were photoshopped onto rowers’ bodies so that they could pretend to be qualified to join the crew at the University of Southern California. A modest $500,000 payment to scheme mastermind William “Rick” Singer’s pretend charity operation sealed the deal.

In an earlier blog post we suggested some reasons, grounded in behavioral ethics, that might help explain why reputable people and loving parents became involved in these frauds.  The conformity bias, the self-serving bias, and incrementalism all may have contributed. The evidence disclosed in the indictment offers additional clues.

A euphemism, say’s Webster’s, is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”

Famed Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura writes of “moral disengagement,” suggesting that people, such as Loughlin and Giannulli, who think of themselves as good people can do something bad so long as they can selectively suspend morality for their activities. One way people do this is by use of euphemisms.  Bandura notes:

Language shapes the perception of events and the thought patterns on which people base many of their actions. The personal and social acceptability of given activities, therefore, can differ markedly depending on what those activities are called. Euphemistic machinations are used widely to detach and depersonalize doers from harmful activities. Cloaking detrimental activities in euphemisms can be a powerful weapon.

Examples of the “sanitizing and convoluted language” (Gambino) of euphemisms that have helped people make their peace with wrongdoing include the following:

  • Dead civilians = “collateral damage”
  • Mass firings = “right-sizing”
  • Lies = “alternative facts”
  • Burning down villages = “pacification”
  • Fraud = “creative accounting”
  • Genocide = “the final solution”

Empirical studies indicate that “euphemistic labels can psychologically sanitize unethical practices, facilitating our participation in them.” (Moore & Gino).

Thus, when Loughlin and Giannulli communicated with Rick Singer, they didn’t admit the obvious—that their daughters were admitted to college because they were participating in a massive fraud. Rather, the children were simply entering college through a “side door.”

Giannulli is quoted in the indictment as saying that his daughters got into U.S.C. not because he paid bribes to athletics officials, but because he “worked the system.”

Euphemisms such as “side door” and “worked the system” do not fool objective third parties, but they appear to have been enough to enable Loughlin and Giannulli to fool, or at least live with, themselves.



Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).

Jeremy Fyke & Kristen Lucas, “Euphemisms and Ethics: A Language-Centered Analysis of Penn State’s Sexual Abuse Scandal,” 114 Journal of Business Ethics 551 (June 2013)

Richard Gambino, “Watergate Lingo: A Language of Non-responsibility,” 22 Freedom at Issue 7-9 (1973).

Matthew S. McGlone et al., “Contamination and Camouflage in Euphemisms,” 73 Communication Monograph 261 (2007)

Jennifer Medina et al., “Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in U.S. College Entry Fraud,” New York Times, March 12, 2019, at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/us/college-admissions-cheating-scandal.html.

Celia Moore & Francesca Gino, “Ethically Adrift: How Others Pull Our Moral Compass from True North, and How We Can Fix It,” 33 Research in Organizational Behavior 53 (2013).

Matthew Ormseth, “Lori Loughlin Always Insisted She was Innocent in Admissions Scandal. Why Change Now?” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2020, at https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-21/lori-loughlin-maintained-she-was-innocent-and-being-mistreated-why-change-now.

Ralph Slovenko, “Euphemisms,” 33 Journal of Psychiatry & Law 533 (2005).

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1976).


Related Ethics Unwrapped Videos

Behavioral Ethics:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/behavioral-ethics

Conformity Bias:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias

Incrementalism: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/incrementalism

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

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