Moral Behavior and Sport

The term moral behavior is used with at least two different meanings in the literature. The first is when researchers  explicitly  define  moral  behavior  and refer to the conditions in which an act is right, or ethical; when these conditions are met, the behavior can  be  called  moral.  For  example,  Augusto  Blasi defined  moral  behavior  as  behavior  that  is  intentional and a response to some sense of obligation, with the latter being a response to an ideal. James Rest  stated  that  without  knowing  what  produced the behavior we cannot call it moral. David Shields and Brenda Bredemeier have emphasized the importance  of  assessing  a  person’s  motives  in  the  study of moral behavior. Albert Bandura highlighted the consequences of the act as important considerations for the labeling of behavior. When the term moral behavior is used in this manner, researchers do not call measured behavior “moral” because from this perspective  we  cannot  call  behavior  moral  unless we know one’s motives for the behavior.

The second meaning of the term moral behavior  is  behavior  that  is  the  subject  of  the  moral domain.  Elliot  Turiel  and  his  colleagues  found that children and adolescents perceive behavior as a  moral  transgression  when  it  is  intentional  and has  consequences  for  the  victim.  Behaviors  that are  classified  in  the  moral  domain  are  these  that involve physical harm (e.g., pushing, shoving, and hitting), psychological harm (e.g., teasing, hurting feelings, ridiculing, or name calling), fairness and rights (e.g., breaking a promise or destroying others’ property), and positive behaviors (e.g., helping another in need, and sharing). Although researchers  do  not  always  explicitly  refer  to  the  moral domain, the meaning of the term moral behavior is implied by the content of reviews or articles that refer to moral action but discuss research on poor sporting behavior, temptation to play unfairly, prosocial  behavior,  and  aggression.  This  entry  introduces  prosocial  and  antisocial  behaviors,  which have been referred to collectively in past research as  moral  behavior.  First,  prosocial  and  antisocial behaviors  are  defined  providing  examples  from the sport context. Then their measurement is discussed  followed  by  a  description  of  the  antecedents of these behaviors. The entry ends with some concluding remarks.


In  sport,  as  in  any  interpersonal  context,  intentional  behaviors  that  typically  have  positive  or negative consequences for others occur. For example,  athletes  encourage  and  support  their  teammates after a mistake and also help other players off  the  floor  or  when  they  are  injured  but  also cheat,  break  the  rules,  or  try  to  hurt  other  players. These two sets of behavior correspond to what Bandura has called proactive and inhibitive morality, respectively—that is people doing good things but  also  refraining  from  doing  bad  things.  The terms prosocial and antisocial behavior have been linked to proactive and inhibitive morality, respectively, and are defined next.

Prosocial   behavior   is   voluntary   behavior intended  to  help  or  benefit  another  individual  or group of individuals. Examples in sport are lending equipment to an opponent; helping another player off the floor; and encouraging, supporting, or congratulating a teammate. Prosocial behavior can be performed  for  a  variety  of  reasons.  For  instance, when  a  basketball  player  helps  his  teammate  off the floor, he intends to help or benefit the recipient. However,  he  could  do  this  because  he  truly  cares about  his  teammate,  or  he  wants  to  impress  his coach, or he expects to receive some other benefit. Thus, although the behavior is voluntary (i.e., nonaccidental) the reasons for the behavior can vary.

Antisocial  behavior  is  behavior  intended  to harm or disadvantage another individual or group of individuals. Examples of antisocial behavior in sport  are  trying  to  injure  an  opponent,  verbally abusing  a  teammate,  retaliating  after  a  bad  foul, faking  an  injury,  and  breaking  the  rules  of  the game.  Antisocial  behavior  overlaps  with  aggression,  which  is  verbal  or  physical  behavior  that  is purposeful,  intended  to  cause  injury,  and  has  the capacity  to  cause  psychological  or  physical  harm to  another  person.  However,  antisocial  behavior is  broader  than  aggression.  For  example,  breaking  the  rules  of  the  game  or  faking  an  injury  are behaviors intended to disadvantage the opponent, but they do not involve physical or psychological harm.  Thus,  these  behaviors  can  be  classified  as antisocial but not aggressive. In contrast, verbally abusing  or  physically  intimidating  another  player can  harm  the  player;  thus,  they  are  both  antisocial  and  aggressive.  The  main  difference  between antisocial and aggressive behaviors is that the term antisocial refers to a broader class of acts, some of which can be classified as aggressive.

Prosocial and antisocial behaviors typically have positive and negative consequences, respectively, for others. Thus, helping an injured player should alleviate his or her distress, and kicking a player should cause  him  or  her  to  experience  pain.  However,  if the player does not feel any pain (e.g., because he or  she  is  distracted  or  has  taken  analgesic  medication),  the  behaviors  will  not  have  the  expected consequences.  Similarly,  encouraging  a  teammate may not benefit the athlete who does not appreciate such encouragement; verbally abusing a player may not cause psychological harm to the individual who ignores the abuse; and cheating may not negatively affect others if the offender is caught and the situation is rectified. Thus, prosocial and antisocial behaviors have the potential to affect others.

Many  studies  have  examined  prosocial  and antisocial behaviors in sport. A consistent finding in  these  studies  is  that  these  behaviors  are  either inversely  associated  or  unrelated  to  each  other. When  they  are  inversely  associated,  the  correlation between them is small or medium. This means that they are relatively independent. Knowing that someone  has  acted  prosocially  toward  another player does not tell us much about his or her antisocial  behavior.  Thus,  it  is  important  to  examine both types of behavior.


Prosocial  and  antisocial  behaviors  in  sport  have been measured using questionnaires and behavioral observation.  Questionnaires  consist  of  several items  referring  to  specific  behaviors  (e.g.,  helping an opponent off the floor, congratulating a teammate, physically intimidating an opponent, verbally abusing  a  teammate).  Participants  are  asked  to indicate how often they engaged in these behaviors in  a  specified  period  of  time.  Responses  to  items are averaged to form separate scores for prosocial and  antisocial  behaviors.  Behavioral  observation involves  videotaping  games  and  coding  behavior to  predetermined  categories  based  on  operational definitions.  For  example,  helping  a  player  off  the floor is operationally defined as pulling a player off the floor, and every time this behavior is observed, a frequency is recorded in the respective category. Frequencies  for  prosocial  and  antisocial  behavior are  computed  separately  to  provide  a  total  score for  each  behavior  type.  Studies  using  these  two methods  have  identified  several  antecedents  of moral behavior, which are discussed next.


A number of individual difference and social environmental factors have been associated with prosocial and antisocial behaviors. Maria Kavussanu has  provided  a  comprehensive  overview  of  these variables. Three of the main antecedents identified in  past  research  are  goal  orientation,  moral  disengagement,  and  motivational  climate.  Goal  orientation refers to the subjective criteria of success people use in achievement contexts such as sport. Two major goal orientations operate in sport: task and ego orientation. Athletes high in task orientation  feel  successful  when  they  try  hard,  do  their best, improve their performance, and master new skills.  These  players  are  more  likely  to  engage  in prosocial  behavior  while  playing  sport.  In  contrast, players high in ego orientation feel successful only when they do better than others; they are preoccupied with winning and showing that they are the best. These players are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior and think that it is appropriate to cheat and injure other players.

The  second  variable,  moral  disengagement, refers to a set of cognitive mechanisms that people use  to  justify  their  antisocial  behavior.  Through these  justifications,  athletes  manage  to  engage  in antisocial  behavior  without  experiencing  negative feelings, such as guilt, that normally controls this  behavior.  For  example,  players  may  displace responsibility  for  their  actions  to  their  coach, blame  their  victim  for  their  own  behavior,  claim that they cheated to help their team, or downplay the consequences of their actions for others. Moral disengagement is associated with higher frequency of antisocial behavior and lower frequency of prosocial behavior.

Finally,  the  motivational  climate  of  the  team refers to the criteria of success that are dominant in the  social  environment  and  is  created  by  parents, teachers, and coaches. Through the feedback they provide, the rewards they give, and, in general, the way they interact with the players, coaches make clear what are the criteria of success in that achievement context. For instance, when coaches provide feedback  about  how  good  a  player  is  relative  to others and reward only the best players, they create a performance motivational climate sending a clear message to athletes that only high ability matters.  Players  who  perceive  a  performance  climatein their team are more likely to display antisocial behavior. In contrast, a mastery climate is one that focuses on individual player improvement, rewards effort and personal progress, and has been associated with prosocial behavior.


In conclusion, moral behavior is a term used to refer to behaviors that are included in the moral domain and it is often used to refer collectively to prosocial and antisocial behaviors. These behaviors are morally  relevant  because  they  can  have  consequences for  others.  Both  dispositional  and  situational  factors  are  associated  with  prosocial  and  antisocial behaviors  in  sport.  Individual  difference  variables such as goal orientation and moral disengagement as well as social environmental factors such as the motivational  climate  of  the  team  are  important determinants of prosocial and antisocial behaviors. By focusing on personal progress, rewarding effort and  improvement,  and  avoiding  explicit  social comparison, we could promote prosocial and deter antisocial behavior from the sport context.


  1. Bredemeier, B. J. L., & Shields, D. L. (1998). Moral assessment in sport psychology. In J. L. Duda (Ed.), Advances in sport and exercise psychology measurement (pp. 257–276). Morgantown, WV: FIT Press.
  2. Kavussanu, M. (2012). Moral behavior in sport. In S.Murphy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 364–383). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  3. Kavussanu, M., & Boardley, I. D. (2009). The prosocial and antisocial behavior in sport scale. Journal of Sport& Exercise Psychology, 31, 97–117.
  4. Kavussanu, M., & Boardley, I. D. (2012). Moralbehavior. In G. Tenenbaum, R. C. Eklund, & A. Kamata (Eds.), Handbook of measurement in sport and exercise psychology (pp. 443–454). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


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