Craig Pearman is a registered psychologist with a clinical practice on the Gold Coast, Qld. He has been involved in the field of psychology for 30 years, both in Canada and Australia, and now focuses a lot of his time on the psychology of sport and athletes (and where that interface can go awry).
Craig’s interest in this particular topic has been growing since he took up cycling as a hobby some years ago. The article itself was sparked as a result of many (sometimes heated) discussions about doping in cycling, usually during his Sunday coffee ride.
He felt an educated psychological opinion-piece on the subject of cheating was apropos, especially since the televised events of 2013. The article is in part a response to one athlete’s self-answered question, “Was I really cheating? I don’t think so!”
Introduction: the concept of cheating
A great deal of attention of late has fallen upon the issue of doping in professional cycling (and recently, in other sports as well) – from the Festina Affair of 1998, through the Armstrong era, to Operacion Puerto. During these 15 years of almost uninterrupted scandal within the world of cycling, a number of questions repeatedly surface.
“How does this happen?”
“Why do they do it?”
“Why aren’t they getting caught?”
“Where did the doping culture come from?”
“Who is responsible?”
These may seem like some pretty fundamental questions. But I believe there may be some equally fundamental questions, of a psychological nature, that are waiting to be answered – and a few of them may even seem ridiculous, on the surface.
“What is cheating?”
“Why do athletes cheat?”
“When and where do we learn to cheat?”
“Why do lying and ‘omerta’ persist?”
As many cycling fans and historians are aware, cheating did not take long to make its appearance in major cycling events. In just the second edition of the Tour de France, the first four finishers of the six-stage race were ultimately disqualified for unfair or disallowed actions, leaving fifth-place finisher Henri Cornet as the eventual title-holder. (At age 19, he remains the youngest winner of Le Tour.) “Doping” – by which we mean the illicit manipulation of bodily fluids, by prohibited means, to enhance performance – is simply the most recent (and most scientifically sophisticated) means by which cyclists have cheated. (In fact, doping is not new either. The first suggested instances of illicit drug use for performance enhancement are believed to have taken place in the late 1890s, by cyclists under the management of Choppy Warburton.) By contrast, “catching a train” is certainly a less sophisticated form of cheating, but leaves little forensic evidence while achieving similar – if not superior – results. So we can put aside the notion that cheating in the sport is something new and shocking, and focus on broader issues. (Readers may be interested to know that the first recorded instance of cheating in sports reportedly occurred in 388 B.C!)
What is cheating?
Let’s look at the first of the psychologically-based questions: What is cheating? One rather notable confessor recently recounted that he had looked up the dictionary definition of the word, for his own purposes. He found the word to mean essentially, “To gain an unfair advantage over others.” But words like “unfair” and “advantage” are just as ambiguous. So rather than delve endlessly into the dictionary, let’s accept the idea of an “unfair advantage” at face value, for now. And the fact is: What constitutes a matter of “unfair advantage” is essentially up to each individual to decide.
Whilst the UCI, WADA, USADA and other relevant parties may agree on what is prohibited, clearly the question of “what is cheating” will be decided by individual athletes using a different set of criteria – hence the “level playing field” argument. Using prohibited methods can be (and has been) construed as fair play by athletes who presume that ‘everybody else is doing it’.
Of course, there is now the issue of who gets to decide what constitutes “level” and how that might be measured – more semantics and pedantics. Furthermore, the athlete (or team) who does the most efficient job of using those prohibited methods – whether by scientific know-how or by superior funding – might now be gaining an unfair advantage over less well-equipped athletes or teams. “It’s a level playing field. My side is just more level than yours!”
So let’s explore the question from a slightly different angle. Can cheating simply be defined as “obtaining desired results or goals without (a) expending the necessary effort or skills, or (b) following the accepted or prescribed pathway(s)”?
Well, there may be a problem here too.
As an example, many professional athletes and teams know of the benefits of altitude training, which first came into prominence around the time of the 1968 Mexico summer Olympics. The basic premise of altitude training is that you encourage your body to perform at a high level in a low-oxygen environment, such that it becomes measurably more efficient. You then perform even better than usual in a normal-oxygen environment, since your body has become adept at using the available oxygen more efficiently.
Okay, all fair so far, because anybody can do this. But what happens when somebody develops a system for altitude training whereby the athlete can avoid travelling to a high-altitude environment? Artificial (and commercially available) altitude training systems are now in widespread use by elite athletes (at least those who can afford it). These systems claim to provide measurable improvements in performance, increased oxygen-carrying capacity, and other cardiovascular benefits (increased blood volume, VO2 max, haematocrit levels, etc), without the time, expense and effort of actually going to altitude1. Is that not the alternative definition of cheating, as outlined above? And yet this common practice is widely accepted by athletes, coaches, doctors, governing bodies and anti-doping agencies. So clearly it is not perceived as cheating. It’s simply taking a scientific short-cut to achieve desired performance outcomes.
(It is probably worthwhile pointing out at his stage, that this article is not intended to excuse or exculpate doping or cheating in any way. The main purpose is to explore the mindset of individual athletes, of teams, and of the culture of elite sports – and to answer some of those seemingly rhetorical questions: Why? How? Etc. Because one key to changing something is to find out why it is the way it is, and how it came to be, rather than to simply impose limits on its existence.)
Another angle that bears considering (from a psychological point of view) is the issue of right versus wrong. If we’re trying to define what cheating is, then presumably it is anything on the “other” side of that line. It should be easy to distinguish “cheating” from “not-cheating”, right? But in the complex inner world of the human mind, it’s really not so simple and straightforward. Consider this: you’re at home, and you decide to go upstairs (to pick up your latest copy of RIDE magazine for a leisurely read). At what point do you cease being downstairs, and find yourself upstairs? If you’re like most people, you simply accept that there is a period of ambiguity whilst on the stairs, where you are neither up nor down.
This same principle is at work in our brains much of the time. Most of us could easily answer the question, “Are you a cheat?” with a simple and confident “No!” But how many of us could say that we’ve never gone up that first step? Running a red light on a ride. Finding a lost item and keeping it. Or some other such example…
Accepting that accidental under-charge from the department store. It is within these areas of ambiguity, where we tell ourselves that it’s okay, that we find we have crossed that line. When we first crossed it, where and why – these are all questions to which many of us cannot recall the answers. And just like those stairs at home, there are no clear delineations along the way. Each successive step looks just like the last – no bigger, no harder, no worse. We can get very far from where we began, taking one small step at a time.
Why do athletes cheat?
Most people have heard of, or experienced, the “cocktail party effect”. It essentially describes a subconscious process of selective attention, whereby party guests are somehow able to hear their own name spoken by a person across the room, amidst dozens of other conversations and noises. We “tune in” something that is relevant or important to us, and effectively “tune out” everything else. And we do it subconsciously, without any awareness or intent.
A similar kind of mental process may play a role in cheating. Imagine a whole range of simultaneous (and often conflicting) thought processes – values, principles, hopes, fears, expectations, beliefs, needs, etc – all playing out in the subconscious mind. The one that will be attended to the most, or “tuned in”, is the one that is most relevant or important to us at that time. If we happen to have a Vince Lombardi attitude towards competition – “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!” – then the desire to win may effectively drown out all the other voices in our mind. And these other voices include such things as ethics, morals, honesty and integrity; voices that normally form part of our healthy self-concept (“I am a good person”). Tuning into “winning”, and tuning out “what is right”, happens frequently within the world of sports, of politics and of business.
Other internal factors also play a role. As early as 1950, it was proposed that people could subconsciously modify their self-concepts in order to account for their unethical behaviours, whenever a challenge they faced (and the emotional discomfort they experienced) was sufficiently great. Later research suggested that young people who set themselves lofty pre-determined performance goals (as opposed to the goal of “doing my best”) were more likely to cheat when it appeared that they may fall short of those goals. There is also believed to be a socialisation process in sports, whereby the attitudes, expectations, morals, values and behaviours of “significant others” (peers, coaches and parents) plays a vital role in an athlete’s own moral and character development. (This socialisation process, among other things, may differ across genders – but that is a topic for later consideration.)
Evidence also suggests that “loss aversion” is a factor in why athletes cheat. People appear to be more likely to cheat to avoid a loss, than to obtain a gain. If an athlete believes that others are cheating (or simply superior), and that a loss is the most likely outcome, the probability of cheating is increased. Far fewer people though, given the probability of winning fairly, will subsequently cheat simply to increase the size of their winning margin.
So how does this tie in with cycling? Well, let us suppose that we have a very talented and headstrong elite-level professional cyclist. Let’s assume that he identifies very strongly with his career (we’ll call that “ego attachment”), that he has a very clear and determined set of priorities (to win, above all else – we’ll call that the “Lombardi effect”), and that he sees the pinnacle of his success – or failure – as being the winner of the Tour de France (we’ll call that “lofty-goal orientation”). You can see that we already have the necessary and sufficient elements for him to begin making some questionable decisions.
If we add into the equation a coach or manager with somewhat dubious ethics, and an internal capacity for “compartmentalisation” (we’ll get to that shortly), the result is almost a foregone conclusion.
And so our hypothetical cyclist, in believing that others are probably cheating, has built up an uncomfortable psychological and emotional potential in his brain, which can only be resolved by ‘levelling’ the playing field. Taking that first step into cheating reduces the discomfort. Subsequent steps provide further relief, perhaps even some positive sensations.
(Research consistently supports the notion that once a person has engaged in unethical or fraudulent behaviour, further steps towards this behaviour become successively easier – like riding over the crest of a hill, and beginning the descent – you pick up momentum as you go.)
Meanwhile, our rider subconsciously maintains his positive self-concept along the way, believing his actions to be justified, and his character to be one of honesty and integrity.
– By Craig Pearman
Part two, coming soon…
1. More information on altitude training systems can be found here.