Psychology of Doping- Why we’re fighting a losing battle- – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running


We’re fighting a losing battle is a phrase that is thrown around far too frequently. It’s meant to show despair but also to inspire a change of direction. When it comes to performance enhancing drug use in sport, sadly this cliche phrase is applicable. We are losing a fight that needs to be won, if not only for the sake of parents and coaches of young athletes everywhere who need to be able to look into their young athletes eyes dreaming of Olympic glory and tell them that it’s possible.

Traditionally, we have fought the war on performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) using a testing based model to try to catch athletes. More recently, the use of investigations and whistle blowers has brought about the catching of drug cheats.

However, If the Lance Armstrong or Marion Jones’ of the world have taught us anything it’s that passing a drug test means little except that you are smart enough to not make a blatant mistake. In a BBC documentary I was a part of, a journalist ordered EPO from China and by simply searching on the Internet, took enough EPO to see massive performance benefits while avoiding raising any suspicion on the latest in anti-doping science, the athlete blood passport.

Let this sink in for a minute. A journalist who is a recreational athlete figured out how to stay clean against our most sophisticated anti-doping measure. Not someone with reams of doctors or sports scientist behind him.

A man, simply searching on the Internet.

This isn’t the anti-drug testers fault, it’s the nature of anti-doping. In order to insure that we don’t have a false positive, a situation that would be far more damaging than any other result, the thresholds are set so high for items like the Blood Passport, that numerous abnormal tests get through the gates.

The problem with the testing and investigating method is that they are ex post facto solutions. They are focused on catching athletes after the athletes has reached a high level of performance. In most cases it’s a catch them after the damage is done situation.

The success rate of this operation can be judged by looking at the rate of drug positives at the elite level (1-2%) versus what recent research suggests is the actual rate (~30%).

Obviously, that’s a pretty large gap, and rather disheartening. On top of that, I couldn’t help but notice in athletes who have actually tested positive have few of them admit to cheating. They hold steadfast that they committed no wrong doing. Even serial cheaters like Lance Armstrong come across as not truly believing that they defrauded fans and their fellow competitors. The mindset seems to be that they don’t truly believe they violated any moral issues.

On the other hand, clean athletes are irate and can’t understand how someone could commit a blatant violation yet show little remorse or understanding.  How could this be?

The problem is a psychological one.

The Psychology of Cheating

In Dan Ariely’s latest book, The Truth about Dishonesty, and research he outlines several research studies which demonstrate why people are dishonest and cheat. For most of history, we’ve viewed cheating as the result of a simple cost-benefit analysis based on economics where people would cheat if the benefit was significantly better than the cost.

This model sets up our current deterrent system, where we try to create large punishments in hopes to dissuade the cheaters from crossing that line is based on this simple model. If we create large enough punishments, then people will think twice about cheating. They’ll sit down and do a rational calculation of their likelihood of success plus what the reward was versus the chance and punishment for getting caught and make the choice not to cheat.

The problem is the cost-benefit model simply doesn’t explain how cheating actually works.

Ariely points out that we don’t function like this at all. Instead, in researching why people cheat Ariely found some surprising results. In most of his experiments he set out situations where people have the opportunity to cheat on tests for rewards. A common set up would be to have individuals take a quick academic test where they get paid per answer they got correctly. In many of the set ups, they have the test takers self report how many answers they got right and get paid on the spot after reporting it. That way, the test takers could simply lie to get more money.

The results were surprising.

Contrary to our traditional viewpoints, they found that the amount paid as a reward did not influence cheating. If they bumped up the amount of money each person received when they cheated, it did little to nothing to influence how much they cheated. Similarly, the probability of getting caught didn’t seem to matter either.

This doesn’t paint a good picture for our traditional monitoring and punishment system which is based on money and getting caught.

But what about small lies?

Ariely and colleagues found that after crossing the line and cheating once, even if it was a small one, our likelihood to cheat in the future increased significantly. After crossing one line, we’re more willing to cheat.  It’s the “what the hell effect.” If we’ve crossed the line, what’s the difference between doing what we did and taking the next step. It’s a steady flow down the ladder of increasingly unacceptable behavior.

As Ariely put it, once we violate behavior, we abandon all control.

Seen in a doping concept it makes perfect sense. Recent research has linked the use of numerous supplements to acting like a “gateway” towards doping. In other words, it’s likely that if we start venturing down the path of “Testoboost” or “EPO boost” that it’s a slippery slope towards doping. Does that mean you’re going to cross that line? Not necessarily, but research shows that it becomes easier to cross the next line as more and more becomes acceptable.

And it gets worse.

It turns out that social dynamics influence cheating. Several recent research studies have shown that cheating is a contagious behavior. What happens is that the social norm of acceptability is shifted. If the line is crossed by others, it becomes a socially acceptable activity.

Furthermore, if it’s within our own social circle, such as a team, our willingness to cheat increases even more. If we see a stranger cheating, it only impacts us slightly, but if it’s someone within our own inner circle of friends, a large shift in cheating occurs. It gets even worse if an authority figure is the one demonstrating unethical behavior.

Consider the implications of this on your team dynamics or from the coaches standpoint. The message you send and the mindset you establish impacts the teams decision making on ethical calls. The coach, as an authority figure, sets the stage. Where your line of acceptability is in ethical issues is where your athletes line will be. Look around at training groups in a  variety of sports and it’s obvious how true this holds.

Lastly, I’d like to briefly mention that we all will cheat more when we’re tired. Ariely conducted research that showed that when individuals experienced ego depletion, in other words were running low on self-control and willpower, they were more likely to cheat. The only thing that saved some individuals was a high level of morality.

If we consider the fact that athletes training at the brink of exhaustion often walk around in a semi-depleted state at best, might they be more susceptible to crossing a certain line? Or would those athletes who are over trained and at their wits end be more likely to cheat?

The Why:
The question though remains, why do people cheat?

When exploring this question , they found it wasn’t a simple risk/reward calculation but instead, people “cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.” The narrative that we tell ourselves in our head is a powerful thing. It turns out it’s so important that in terms of our dishonestly, it’s not a mismatch between risk/reward but instead a balance between us thinking we’re good people in our heads while wanting to get some sort of benefit from cheating. As Ariely points out, this results in a situation where “as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings.”

The key in this “fudge factor theory” is that we all set our own lines. It’s how far across the line can we go while still looking in the mirror and thinking we are good people. For some it might be a white lie here or there, for others it might be full blown crossing over a very obvious line.

We all cheat. But ONLY how much we can get away with while still telling ourselves we are good, decent people. There are very few people walking around thinking in their head that they are a horrible person.

That’s a profound statement and hard to wrap our heads around but it’s true. Think about the cheats like Lance Armstrong. To the end, he didn’t truly feel like he was cheating. He rationalized it by stating that everyone was doing it so the line was shifted. This is what happens with every person.

It’s the reason why almost every single cheater doesn’t believe that they are actually cheating. They’ve weaved a story in their head that justifies it. You see it in interviews with them after the fact. It’s also why they can be utterly convincing when they answer questions about if they are cheating. They truly believe that they are doing things the right way.

The human mind has a tremendous ability rationalize and justify.

Dopers convince themselves:

How often do we hear a clean athlete state, “They have to live with the consequences of doping and knowing the medal they earned wasn’t real. How do you live with yourself.”

It makes perfect logical sense for the clean athlete. How can you feel joy after winning a dirty medal? The clean athlete couldn’t imagine it. The mistake in the logic though, is that the doper has convinced themselves in their own mind that they are doing nothing wrong. Remember that cheating is all about cheating enough that we can still convince ourselves we are good, honest people.

And research backs this up. As Ariely points out:

“We want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.”

Cheaters in all walks of life truly convince themselves they had done nothing wrong. Even if someone took EPO before the Olympic final, they still see this medal as won by hard work.

Look no further than Lance Armstrong who convinced himself he would still be the true winner and proudly tweeted out a picture of his 7 tour jerseys after being busted. Or Mark McGwire who refused to say that steroids helped him hit any more home runs than he could have naturally (despite the obvious statistics…). It’s all justification. They don’t believe they are doing anything wrong.

And what’s worse, Research demonstrated that if someone receives an award or certificate, they are even more likely to justify their behavior. Additionally, a monetary reward to report accuracy, did nothing to dissuade people’s false belief that it was their own knowledge (and not the cheating from looking at an answer key in a test) that made them do well.

Think about that for a second. Even people monetarily encouraged to assess their abilities accurately, still held this inflated belief of their own knowledge and work ethic that was completely based on cheating.

That’s the power of the mind.

Another interesting finding from Ariely is that an inflated sense of self makes it where individuals are more likely to believe their own justification story. This makes intuitive sense, but what it signifies is that those who cheated but justified it their mind, are much more likely to believe their own justification and thus think they did nothing wrong, if they have a larger ego. I’ll leave it to those astute observers of sport to decide, but this is a very common experience in sport. You see big time athletes, coaches, etc. who have an inflated ego of themselves and it’s more likely that they will see nothing wrong with their actions.

So if someone convinces themselves that they are doing it to save U.S. running, or to help some poor athlete escape poverty, the likelihood for cheating likely goes up. They’ve got their built in justification. And they won’t think they are cheating, or feel bad about doing so.

As a good friend put it, “If you retell the story enough, it gets to be exactly how you want it.”

Preventing Doping:
Now  that we’ve outlined the doom and gloom, let’s get to the what actually be done. As I outlined at the beginning, we have to continue to look at testing and investigation to catch cheaters, but what about addressing it on the front end, prevention.

Every once in a while you’ll see a governing body do a clean sport education program, or you’ll have athletes sit through a WADA/USADA online education program. Those are all fine and probably do a good job of explaining the basics of the system and so forth.

But in terms of prevention, do they actually accomplish anything? Or are they like the work place leadership programs that go on across the country that leave us feeling good about ourselves for a day or two before we inevitably settle down into our previous routines. I’m not sure I have the answer to that one, but to me the tactic often involved is one of scare tactics.

It’s the 1980’s anti-drug model of showing scary things that drugs can do. We often give the same lessons to kids, telling them about how steroids will do this or EPO will do that. The problem is this tactic doesn’t often work in influencing behavior, or it actually influences someones behavior subconsciously in the wrong direction.

And if athletes are willing to risk their lives, take years off of it as well, in exchange for a medal, as many studies have shown, does it make sense that scare tactics will work?

So what am I suggesting?

In Ariely’s research they tried a whole slew of items to decrease dishonesty and found the following four methods effective:

-Moral Reminders

The first three of these things refer to what I’d call reminders. Whether it’s pledging before a test, signing an honor code, or a reminder of your morals, they all decreased subsequent cheating on a test.

In his research on cheating in a classroom setting, Ariely found that simply having individuals swear on the bible or attempting to remember the 10 commandments prevented cheating. This occurred even if the participants were atheists. Is there something special about religion that makes us resist cheating? Absolutely not, what is happening is that these brief interventions remind us of our moral values. Additional research found that making students sign an honor code from their university reduced cheating (even if their universities didn’t actually have honor codes). It’s this subtle reminder right before we’re about to cheat that matters.

Am I saying that we should bring bibles, Koran’s, and other holy books to track meets? Nope, not that. What I’m getting at is we need a mindset shift.

While it’s impossible for us to stick a bible in front of every athlete right before he rubs that cream or injects himself with the latest designer drug. What about adding a brief statement before athletes fill out there whereabouts form? Or perhaps an ever changing weekly reminder to athletes that they are signing a moral code of ethics. It doesn’t have to be complex, what we need to do is develop a system to remind athletes of the their values.

It may sound ridiculous, but research shows that these subtle reminders help curb our temptation to cheat. It works by “resetting” our fudge factor line. Subtle reminders make sure that the line doesn’t shift to some new level of acceptability.

On Ariely’s final point, supervision, it’s obvious. If there’s someone nearby supervising us, we’re less likely to cheat. Obviously this is hard to translate to a lone athlete taking EPO in his bathroom, but this is where social norms play a role.

Attacking Social Acceptability:
Lastly, as Dr. Ariely states “Cheating is not about the probability of being caught, it’s what’s socially acceptable in our circle.”

And this is perhaps the most practical and important items when it comes to engendering change. Right now, drug users have the upper hand. It’s becoming more and more socially acceptable to dope. Maybe not intentionally, but the perception is that a larger percentage of users are using, whether because of cycling scandals or the latest ARD/Sunday Times investigations.

The perception needs to be wrestled back from drug cheats. Clean athletes, coaches, sponsors, etc. need to take a stand for clean sport. Speak out and show the next generation of athletes that they are on the majority and have backing not to cheat.

It’s not simply about speaking either, but do so in actions to. There was a lot of power in Ben True and others releasing their supplement declaration forms. Did it really matter? No. But it said, here you go, you don’t need to take 10 different crazy things to make it to the world class level. It’s the mindset that matters.

The same goes for agents, coaches, and sponsors. The message you send when you sign/start coaching a former drug cheat who offered no remorse, is one that states at the top we don’t care about clean sport. The moment shoe companies send athletes to coaches who have had 4-5+ athletes test positive, it’s sending the message that we don’t care and we’re going to take this fresh out of college athlete into a spot where she might be swayed the wrong direction. If we have governing bodies that hire ex-drug cheats who give lame excuses, it sends the wrong message.

That message matters. Far more than people realize, and research backs that up.

And that’s the key. Coaches, governing bodies, athletes, and sponsors set the stage. They determine the way in which social acceptability swings. The greater the perception that no one truly cares, the greater likelihood that individuals will succumb to taking drugs.

As athletes coming out of college, remember that your norms will be shaped by your coaches, teammates, agents, and entourage around you. Choose wisely.

Just consider the groups that are “known” for dopers or shady athletes. Look no further than Victor Chegin and his race walking crew with over over a dozen athletes testing positive for EPO. In Russia, it’s become the norm to dope. Do we really think that every single athlete that gets involved in Russian athletics has no morals and is a terrible person? No, but because the norm is to dope, the fence sitters are getting dragged in the wrong direction.

We’re always going to have those athletes who take drugs. We’re always going to have athletes who would never touch a drug even if they were in the old East German athletics system. Most people, like on a bell curve, find themselves somewhere in the middle. Our goal should be to make sure all of these individuals don’t go the wrong way.

That means creating an environment where the social norm is to compete clean.

From a WADA/USADA perspective, I’d track supplement and legal drug use. They already require it as declaration of use on their forms, and perhaps they are tracking it. But I’d put a system in place where if the number or kinds of supplements increased beyond a low level, (A)I’d increase target testing and (B) I’d try an immediate intervention. This could be something as simple as a reminder to that person on why they got into sports, the beauty of clean sport, and perhaps a subtle reminder of their morality and a signing of a pledge to stay clean.

So what?

Education and testing are often touted as a defense against doping. But it’s not about using scare tactics and explaining these are the health consequences of steroids. Testing alone catches a small portion of the drug users. Neither works in changing behavior. We are incredibly short sighted.

The key then is to shift mindsets to influence behavior. It should be to educate people on the slippery slope and justifications that they might encounter. It’s to have athletes reflect on their purpose for pursuing athletics, their values, and whether or not the values would allow cheating.

So what I’m asking for is openness. If we can create an environment where it is normal to share what vitamins, supplements, and foreign objects go into the bodies of elite athletes, we can start to shift the tide. Create the culture where people believe that they can reach the highest levels with only Flintstone vitamins and hard work. Perhaps even providing their regular blood tests to an independent panel of physicians who sign off on them publicly, would also help. If we have our top athletes willing to band together in the name of clean sport, beyond the cliche of “test me, I’m clean,” then we can start shifting the culture.

It’s not about simply releasing blood values, that’s not the point or perhaps even the right thing to do.  It’s about creating an atmosphere where there isn’t secrecy and subterfuge. Without secrecy, then athletes truly believe that they can make it to the next level.

And perhaps thats the point.  The governing bodies, coaches, or athletes who are complaining about the intrusion of privacy, the ‘witch hunt’ like activities, and the general cynicism towards doping in athletes, should step back and realize that the reason we are in such a situation is the message that has been sent. You can’t complain about the problem, if the behavioral standard has been set to accept cheating. We’re in the position of needing hyper-transparency because for generations athletes, coaches, sponsors, and so forth allowed the issue to grow. So don’t blame the media or athletes for the intrusiveness and suspicion.

Instead, look in the mirror and realize that the decisions that everyone in this sport makes, matters. From sponsors sending athletes to known drug cheat coaches, to agents taking on dirty clients, to clean athletes staying quiet in fear of upsetting someone, to governing bodies assigning former drug cheats as high profile coaches. It all sends a message that doping is socially acceptable.

Doping is a psychological issue. It’s not that every person who dopes is evil and deranged. Some are seemingly good people who made a bad choice. Understanding why they made this choice is the key to curbing doping.

As Dr. Ariely points out:

In order to curb cheating, “we must start with an understanding of why people behave dishonestly in the first place.”

And I don’t think we truly understand.

If you’re interesting in an easy read on some of the research mentioned, I highly recommend Dan Ariely’s books, The Truth About Dishonesty



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