Opinion Change – Judgement and Decision Making

Double standards of conduct: the price of fame?
November 2, 2010, 5:01 am
Filed under: Sport

Sports stars have become popular and influential figures in mainstream society. The development of this social phenomenon can be largely attributed to heavy mass media coverage of sports by a variety of media outlets (Strudler, 2000). The tendency of media sources to focus their sport coverage specifically on individual athletes has created concern over the potential role modelling influence of star athletes and in turn led people to wonder whether or not these sporting stars are being held to a higher standard.

It is of common opinion that sports stars are held to a higher standard of moral conduct (Fralic, 2010; Kellett, 2009; Quinn, 2010). This is evidenced by the publics’ perceptions of the social status assigned to sport and the scrutiny of athletes’ personal characteristics and actions. These evaluations are believed to be made on a set of criteria beyond those used for other members of society as a result of augmented expectations stemming from increased social status. The opinion that sports starts are held to a higher standard of conduct is well based with examples of occurrences becoming evident on international levels.

There are a number of instances in particular that support the notion that sports stars are held to a double standard. Stephanie Rice posted a controversial comment on popular social networking site ‘Twitter’ which saw her heavily criticised and publicly vilified (Cowley, 2010). Beyond the unwarranted amount of media attention given to this indiscretion a stark disparity in the consequences of such an act became apparent. Given a similar situation would the average layman have received so much as a frown? Another example of exaggerated mistakes perpetuated by the media is in the case of Ben Cousins. One of the AFL’s most well known players has arguably become one of the most scrutinised national sportsmen in history (Toohey, 2010). Initially criticised for his abuse of illicit substances Ben Cousins was eventually ostracised from AFL communities and condemned by the nation. Firstly, should his off field discretions be able to hinder his chances of professional success? Secondly, would he have faced such severe punishment if he were not atop societies proverbial pedestal? Rugby lead star Jonathan Thurston is facing a similar situation having been disgraced over charges of public nuisance.  Thurston is to appear in Brisbane Magistrates Court to face charges regarding his alcohol-fuelled indiscretion (Badel, Marshall & Ritchie, 2010).  Star player Willie Mason argues that the public and media scrutiny on high-profile players has become ridiculous and that people are looking for any sign to get stars in trouble (Badel & Ironside, 2010).

Vaughan Mayberry, journalist for MX newspaper in Brisbane, believes we are obsessed with sporting stars voilating the social norms assigned to them. To highlight the apparent double standard between sports stars and the layman he draws reference to his own drunken antics. In a specific incident that led to his arrest he recalls being released after approximately 10 minutes without charge and the incident was not followed up by any newspaper stories or opinion pieces.  Mayberry believes that no one cared about the indiscretion because he was just an ‘average Joe’ and such acts were commonplace among young people but adding a sporting star to this scenario would automatically have made it front-page news (Mayberry, 2010).

Infidelity is another type of scandal that seems to lead to the disgrace of sporting stars and the demise of their careers despite being nothing out of the ordinary to general members of society. Tiger Woods philandering almost cost him his career. It lost him millions of dollars of sponsorship and endorsement deals and saw him publicly humiliated on international stages. Tiger Woods was forced to apologise to the world for personal incidents of which his family were at the forefront (Chance, 2009). By this standard should any member of society caught cheating on their spouse apologise to people uninvolved in the incident? Would it be appropriate to expect demotion or dismissal as a result of infidelity? If this were the case numerous individuals would find themselves unemployed. Why then does it seem that some of the same people with strong opinions about sporting stars transgressions are committing similar offences?

A psychological theory known as the Fundamental Attribution Error could be applied to understand the tendency of people to severely criticise sports stars for committing acts that are readily overlooked in situations involving themselves. According to this theory, observers tend to over attribute behaviour to dispositional factors and underestimate the influence of situational factors. That is to say that when involved in an unfavourable situation people tend to attribute their actions to situational factors deemed beyond their control. However, when appraising the acts of others in similar situations people are more likely to attribute negative outcomes to character flaws or lack of morals (Plous, 1993). This explains the ability of some people to condemn stars for scandals similar to those they have also committed. This effect is augmented by the status assigned to sports stars and the added responsibility of being a role model. Increased expectations coupled with the intensification of tabloid-style coverage and dramatisation of events leads to a double standard of conduct dubbed ‘the price of fame’ (Shilbury & Sherry, 2005).

The Availability Heuristic is another cognitive process that may facilitate people’s inaccurate judgments of sports stars. Coined by psychologists as the Availability Heuristic, this cognitive process refers to the tendency of decision makers to assess the frequency of an event by the ease with which instances or occurrences can be brought to mind (Plous, 1993). Psychologists argue that relying on availability to estimate frequency of occurrence can be disadvantageous as decision makers’ risk simplifying what might otherwise have been a difficult judgment. Some events are more available than others not because they tend to occur more frequently but because they are inherently easier to think about (Plous, 1993). With regard to the topic at hand, it is plausible that people are using this cognitive process in their appraisals of sports stars. Due to the bolstering of negative images via media outlets people are much more likely to recall situations in which sports stars actions violate social standards as these events are far more likely to be reported than acts in which no violation occurred.  That is to say that although unfavourable situations involving sports stars are easier to recall than favourable ones it is not necessarily true that the rate of these occurrences outnumber the positive ones.  It is most likely due to the amount of negative information published rather than the frequency of these events.

The vividness of information is also believed to affect peoples’ ability to make decisions. According to the theory, vivid information is more influential in the decision making process than pallid, abstract or statistical information (Plous, 1993).  The dramatisation of negative events by means of disturbing imagery and language is a technique used by the media to affect the way their audiences process the presented information. By making specific pieces of information more vivid than others it forces audiences to pay closer attention to the desired components of stories rather than information that is more incongruent to the negative image they are trying to portray.  An example of the affect of information vividness is with regard to the media output of the Ben Cousins saga. In one particular piece a colour photograph of a shirtless Ben Cousins being arrested and displaying his trademark tattoo features predominantly on the page. A short article features alongside the image giving a brief overview of the scandal with no confirmatory evidence as to the details of the scandal or the status of his conviction mentioned (Humphries, 2007). Similar images flooded all forms of media output following the exposure of the scandal that led audiences to overestimate his immorality. Are audiences likely to recognise the lack of confirmatory evidence presented in the article or be influenced by the scandalous imagery and motivated to align their beliefs appropriately?

Vividness of information gives a hot cognitive explanation for the unjustifiable negative evaluation of sports stars. A hot cognitive approach is typified by decisions based on emotional and defensive motivations rather than informational considerations (Gilovich, 1991). Allowing images such as the one previously mentioned to predominantly influence judgments regarding the situation is an example of this emotional decision making approach. Conversely, cold cognitive approaches to decision making involve the rationalisation of situations and consideration of accumulated knowledge (Gilovich, 1991). An individual would be more likely to consider information beyond that vividly presented when appraising such a situation. For example, a decision maker using the hot cognitive approach would be motivated to condemn Ben Cousins on the basis of the disturbing image, as it is incongruent of the behaviours expected of a role model. However, if in a cold cognitive state consideration would be made to rationalise the incongruence in line with the views of the individual. That is to say that considerations for alternate explanations would be made such as the age of the sports star or their social pressures at the time of the incident.  Should sporting stars social status deny them the chance to make mistakes?

It is the belief of some people that sports stars should be held to a higher standard of moral conduct, as they are public figures that are expected to set the benchmark for what is acceptable in society (Remmers, 2010). It is believed that they are representative of more than themselves, idolised for more than their athletic abilities, and for such reasons should behave like the faultless role models they have been constructed to be. In an online discussion it was argued that due to the cultural characteristics of sport and the role it plays in mainstream society high-profile athletes are symbolic of moral standards in society. Furthermore, it was believed that for these reasons stars should be evaluated on more stringent criteria than other members of society (Critchley, 2008). Conversely, whilst other members of society do acknowledge that sports stars are held to a higher standard of moral conduct they are not of the same opinion that this double standard is warranted (Roar, 2008). In online opinion polls it is the belief of a number of individuals that sports stars are constructed by sponsors and the media to fit a marketable image for profitable outcomes. They believe that in situations where the stars actions are incongruent to their projected image stars are unfairly condemned by the media, their sponsors and in turn, by society (Fiedorek, 2010).  In order to avoid contradictions of data with their opinion people shared a tendency to interpret the data according to their own set of beliefs.

The reputation of sports stars is at the mercy of media outlets. The data and evidence fed to the general population is controlled and censored by the media.  This restriction of information risks severe biasing in the disclosed information. Gilovich (1991) argues that second hand information can have severe biasing effects.  Firstly, it is argued that some sources may have strong motive for telling a good story. With regard to sports stars, it is believed that gossip and scandals attract more attention and make more money than reporting occurrences of acceptable behaviour (Stark, 2007).  Furthermore, Gilovich (1991) also argues that is it difficult to avoid making a good story better. It is for this reason that media outlets are inclined to dramatise events and focus more on outrageous or scandalous pieces of information in their reports. The distortion of stories by these sources is particularly potent when the story is second hand. That is to say that when knowledge of events is reported by a source via another source on behalf of the involved party it can be the case that publications cease to mention certain pieces of information and it possible that inconvenient or incongruent pieces of information are not even known by the third party. It is apparent that media outlets have strong motives for constructing biased arguments and emphasising their own points of view in the tabloid coverage of sports stars. The projection of these biased pieces of information to the unsuspecting members of society in turn influences their opinions on associated issues.

The data show evidence that sports stars are held to a higher standard of conduct.  Although little consensus exists as to whether or not these increased appraisals are warranted the data show that expectations, responsibilities and weightings of status are augmented for these members of society. Research has found sufficient evidence exists to make a decision on one side or the other of this controversial topic and it is down to individual interpretations and cognitive assessments to align the data with personal opinions. It has been found that individuals are motivated by a number of reasons to interpret the data in ways which align most appropriately with their opinions and beliefs.  If individual members of society misinterpret the data as a result of heuristic error or manipulations by sources such as the media does it really matter? To assess the significance of these appraisals the associated costs must be considered.  On the level of the individual, sports stars careers and livelihoods are at the forefront of these decisions.  The decision by members of society to criticise and condemn these individuals is of great cost to them and their families. The affect of social disapproval can often cause irreparable damage to sports stars personal and professional lives.  On a social level, the deceptive manipulation of data by media sources can leave untrained decision makers vulnerable to exploitation. Creating an environment in which it is socially acceptable to unjustifiably condemn sports stars could deter future athletes from stepping into the limelight. In a society in which sport is a fundamental part of culture deterrence of membership could come at great costs.



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Badel, P., Marshall, M., & Ritchie. D. (2010, September 17) Willie lends support as critics demand action. The Courier Mail. pp. 124-125.

Chance, K.X. (2009, December 18). Re: Tiger Woods and the immorality of probing for immorality [Web blog message]. Retrieved from  http://xavierchance. wordpress.com/2010/03/08/tiger-woods-and-the-immorality-of-probing-for-immorality/

Cowley, M. (2010, September 9). Twitter turns into anti-social networking trap for sport stars. The Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au

Critchley, C. (2008, June 12). Re: Sports stars are role models whether they like it or not. The Herald Sun. Retrieved from http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun

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Fralic, S. (2010, March 26). Re: Jesse vs. Tiger: The cheating double standard. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from www.vancouversun.ca

Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reasoning in everyday life. New York: The Free Press.

Humphries, D. (2007, October 20). Inside the Eagles drug nightmare. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from  http://www.smh.com.au

Kellett, C, (2009, October 12). Farina suspension ‘too harsh’. The Brisbane Times, Retrieved from http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au

Mayberry,V. ( 2010, September 16) Thurston slammed in drunk tank. mX, p. 13.

Plous, S. (1993). The psychology of judgement and decision making. New York. McGraw-Hill.

Quinn, E. (2010, June 22). Re: Should Athletes Be Better Role Models? [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://sportsmedicine.about.com/b/2010/06/22/ should-athletes-be-better-role-models.htm

Remmers, J.K. (2010, April 16). Re: How public opinion defrocks stars where others fail. [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from http://themoderatevoice.com /69613/how-public-opinion-defrock-stars-where-others-fail/

Roar. (2010, March 18). Re: Do we have unfair expectations of our sports stars? [Online opinion poll]. Retireved from http://www.theroar.com.au/2010/03/18/

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Stark, J. (2007, Septmeber 1). Re: Exposing our dirty double standards [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/story ?columnist=stark_jayson&id=3009424

Toohey, P. (2010, September 18). How drug addiction shot down an eagle. The Courier Mail. pp. 66-67.


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