“You Can’t Do That!” Subjective Group Dynamics and Moral Reasoning Strategies in Sports Fans


Sports fans expect athletes to achieve excellence and uphold character both on and off the field. For instance, athletes who engage in fair sportsmanship, respect, and obedience to authority are hailed as heroes, while those who infringe upon such virtues are derogated. Regardless of their actions, athletes are evaluated by sports fans in a variety of ways, given that individual differences in moral values and processing of moral-related behaviors exist. These mechanisms are referred to as moral reasoning strategies. Using the lens of subjective group dynamics, the purpose of the current study is to determine how sports fans utilize various moral reasoning strategies to judge athlete performance and moral-related behaviors. We conducted an online experiment using a 2 (group: ingroup, rival outgroup) × 2 (type of behavior: performance, moral) × 2 (nature of behavior: positive, negative) between subjects design, with group manipulations reflected via fictitious articles about actual college football athletes. We captured self-reported ratings of moral reasoning (i.e., decoupling, coupling, and rationalization), identification with the ingroup team, perception of rivalry between the teams, as well as the athlete’s perceived competence and integrity. Results revealed an ingroup favoritism effect and proclivity to provide higher ratings of competence and integrity towards positive behaviors (e.g., strong performance and sound moral character). We also found a positive relationship between moral coupling and perceived competence of the athlete, along with a positive association between moral decoupling and perceived integrity. Practical implications and future directions for research are also discussed.


Sean Pradhan
Associate Professor of Sports Management and Business Analytics, School of Business, Menlo College, California, United States

Dae Hee Kwak
Faculty, Sport Management, University of Michigan , Michigan, United States

Sean Laraway
Professor, San Jose State University

Susan Snycerski
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, San Jose State University


Presentation Type

Poster Session


Media Marketing and Identity


Subjective Group Dynamics, Moral Reasoning, Sports Fans, Athlete Behavior

Digital Media


“You Can’t Do That!” Subjective Group Dynamics and Moral Reasoning Strategies in Sports Fans (pdf)