“Winning Fixes Everything” Nike’s Facebook page declared when Tiger Woods rose to rank #1 for the first time since his fall from grace. Many people (maybe you) found this advertisement offensive and re-vowed to hate Tiger Woods even more. However, chances are these same Tiger-haters did not re-vow to hate Nike more and righteously throw away their Air Jordan’s, Yoga pants, and cleats. These Tiger-haters found a way to separate (decouple) Nike and Nike’s support of Tiger.
However, despite their own decoupling behavior, these Tiger-haters probably don’t sympathize with how Tiger-fans are often decoupling Tiger’s current winning self from Tiger’s past actions.
Both Tiger-haters and Tiger-fans are engaging in a psychological process called “moral decoupling,” first coined by Dartmouth professor Amit Bhattacharjee and colleagues. Moral decoupling is a mental gymnastics trick people use when they like something (e.g. Nike, Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton) but disapprove of a specific action by the object (e.g. support of or engagement in illicit behavior). “Moral decoupling” provides an easier and seemingly more justifiable way to hold a belief than trying “morally rationalize” away an unambiguously bad action as not wrong (e.g. cheating on a spouse).
Like any mental gymnastics trick, moral decoupling is more likely to be seen as justifiable by those who do the gymnastics trick than those who do not. Cue the fiery blogs, flame wars, and ESPN going crazy, as everyone sees the justification in their own biases but not in others’ biases.