The concept of moral atmosphere was originally described by Lawrence Kohlberg and his associates, who investigated school and prison environments to determine the influence of the group norms of these settings on moral reasoning and behavior. They proposed that, over time, groups develop their own culture and a shared understanding of what is appropriate behavior as a result of interaction among group members. These shared group norms define the moral atmosphere of a group. Thus, moral atmosphere involves a set of collective norms regarding moral action on the part of group members. In this entry, the relevance of moral atmosphere to sport is explained, research examining this construct in sport is discussed, and the link between moral atmosphere and other relevant variables is highlighted. The entry ends with study limitations and conclusions regarding the importance of moral atmosphere in sport.
Moral atmosphere is particularly relevant to sport settings, especially team sport. For example, in a soccer team certain philosophies are developed over time regarding appropriate behavior in that context. These philosophies are partly the outcome of characteristics of the coach and team members and develop as players interact with each other and with their coach. Teammates’ choices in situations that give rise to moral conflict are also part of the moral atmosphere. Moral atmosphere (which is also referred to as team norms) is assumed to affect moral decision making (DM) and behavior in sport.
E. Stephens and Brenda J. L. Bredemeier were the first to examine moral atmosphere in relation to self-reported likelihood to aggress against an opponent in young female soccer players. They presented participants with an aggression scenario featuring a hypothetical protagonist who was faced with the decision of tackling an opponent from behind, thereby risking injuring her. Athletes were asked to imagine themselves in this situation and indicate how likely they would be to tackle the hypothetical opponent from behind. Moral atmosphere was assessed via players’ perceptions of the number of teammates willing to engage in the behavior and the degree of importance the coach placed on normative success. When athletes perceived that a large number of their teammates would engage in the described behavior and that being the best team was important to their coach, they indicated greater likelihood to behave aggressively.
In another line of research by Maria Kavussanu, Steve Miller, and their colleagues, moral atmosphere was examined in relation to multiple components of morality—namely, moral judgment, intention, and behavior. These researchers have typically presented athletes with scenarios describing inappropriate behaviors—for example, faking an injury, pushing an opposing player when the referee is not looking, and risking injuring an opposing player. Players’ perceptions of the number of teammates who would engage in these behaviors, as well as their perceptions of their coach as encouraging the behaviors in question if it was necessary for the team to win, were measured as the two dimensions of moral atmosphere. Soccer and basketball players who perceived their coach as encouraging the described behaviors and a large number of teammates as likely to engage in the behaviors, were more likely to judge the behaviors as appropriate and to report the intention to engage and greater frequency of engagement in the behaviors.
An interesting finding revealed in previous research is the strong relationship between moral atmosphere and performance motivational climate. This refers to a goal structure that values normative success and rewards only the best players and is typically created by important others in the achievement context such as coaches. In some studies, players who perceived that their coach created a performance motivational climate in their team also perceived their coach as encouraging them to push another player, fake an injury, or risk injury to their opponents, if such behaviors were necessary for the team to win. This finding suggests that coaches who create a performance motivational climate in their team value winning over the players’ welfare.
In all sport studies that have examined moral atmosphere, the relationship between this construct and moral variables is very strong. It is important to note that in all studies to date, moral atmosphere has been measured via athlete reports in response to the same scenario that is also used to measure athletes’ behavior. It is possible that, to a certain degree, athletes may project their own thoughts on others. That is, athletes may think that their teammates would behave in a certain manner because they are likely to behave in this way. This issue is important to keep in mind when interpreting the findings of previous research. However, overall, there is strong evidence for the relationship between moral atmosphere and moral behavior in sport, and it makes sense that the prevailing team norms should affect players’ behavior.
- Kavussanu, M., & Spray, C. M. (2006). Contextual influences on moral functioning of male youth footballers. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 1–23.
- Power, C., Higgins, A., & Kohlberg, L. A. (1989).Lawrence Kohlberg’s approach to moral education. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Shields, D. L. L., Bredemeier, B. J. L., Gardner, D. E., & Bostrom, A. (1995). Leadership, cohesion, and team norms regarding cheating and aggression. Sociology of Sport Journal, 12, 324–336.
- Stephens, D. E., & Bredemeier, B. J. L. (1996). Moral atmosphere and judgments about aggression in girls’ soccer: Relationships among moral and motivational variables. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 18,158–173.