Moral Atmosphere

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.


  1. Kavussanu, M., & Spray, C. M. (2006). Contextual influences on moral functioning of male youth footballers. The Sport Psychologist, 20, 1–23.
  2. Power, C., Higgins, A., & Kohlberg, L. A. (1989).Lawrence Kohlberg’s approach to moral education. New York: Columbia University Press.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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