Notwithstanding the tendency to transgress social norms when free from the discipline of their sport performance cultures, most serious athletes and players are morally upstanding individuals. Many give their time freely to good causes, while others use their personal brand-value to raise funds for charitable institutions. There is little evidence to suggest that either athletes’ on-field play reveals an impoverished moral character and low ethical standards, or that their off-field personal lives are plagued by questionable activities. Neither do drug-using athletes break more rules than non-drug using athletes, or lie awake at night guilt-ridden and burdened by an overwhelming sense of self-loathing. Yet, it is also clear that doping and elite sport go hand in hand. How is it then that so many athletes choose to cheat by using banned performance enhancing substances?

Our own research with elite athletes and professional players suggests that many dopers view their proclivities as a normal part of the game. Like politicians’ views of the truth, athletes believe that the morality of drug use is a matter of perspective, where ethics bends to pragmatism. As Charlie Francis—Ben Johnson’s coach—infamously observed, ‘It’s only cheating if no one else is doing it.’ Most elite athletes also understand that a failure to ‘dope’ renders careful nutrition, high intensity training, and methodical practice, a waste of time. Doping is thus viewed as one of many crucial—and indeed, legitimate—strategies to achieve athletic excellence. Additionally, the will-to-win and concomitant drive for fame pushes the fear of being caught to the side. The added expectation of economic gain provides confirmation that becoming ‘the best’ is the ultimate peak experience.

As a result, sport’s drug-use controllers are faced with two significant challenges associated with athlete beliefs and behaviors. First, drug-using athletes do not necessarily acknowledge that drug taking is cheating, and thus feel little guilt when deciding to use. Second, they are not discouraged from use by the severe consequences of getting caught.  The use of drugs in sport is therefore underpinned by supporting belief sets sufficiently strong to counter the twin burdens of personal moral failure and potential professional ruin.

So, why are many athletes prepared to take drugs to improve their performances, despite the severity of the many sanctions in place? Our answer to this question draws on cognitive science’s evolutionary foundations to demonstrate that athlete’s cognitive fallibilities create a massive gap between how sport officials think athletes should respond to sanctions, and how athletes actually respond.

We argue that athletes who take drugs to improve performance are not social deviants, misfits, or morally corrupt. Rather, they believe that drug use is just another way of securing an edge in order to optimize athletic potential, and as a result they have no moral case to answer. Moreover, an athlete’s decision-making processes, which incorporates cognitive heuristics or rule-of-thumb ‘shortcuts’, gives little weight to the risk of being exposed, and the sanctions and shaming that might follow. Sporting officials, on the other hand, make equally faulty assumptions about the veracity of their deterrence strategies.

Current anti-doping policies are also underpinned by the increasingly dubious assumption that people justify their actions on the basis of their beliefs. Evidence from game theory and role-playing simulations indicates that people often practice the reverse. In one study, the research team began by eliciting a sample group’s proclaimed beliefs and then set about to compare them with the group’s ‘revealed’ beliefs as demonstrated through their actions.[1] The results showed that subjects displaying high levels of strategic self-interest had the greatest differentials between stated and revealed beliefs. Not only did they make inaccurate claims about their beliefs, but they also justified these inaccuracies by saying their actions were forced upon them by an opponent’s behavior. By ‘blaming the victim’ they minimized their guilt, justified their self-serving actions, and rationalized their initial—but deceptive— proclamation of ethical transparency and social responsibility. While selfish behavior might be contained where actions are scrutinized and judged by independent authorities, evolutionary psychology also suggests that deception will be used to give the appearance of social compliance, when doing the opposite of what one proclaims will deliver a personal advantage.

While this hardwired trait of strategic self-interest drives many athletes to use performance enhancing drugs, there are social, cultural, and commercial factors such as a sport’s cultural traditions, the level of competition, and the economic rewards from winning, that modify drug use. Gender, religiosity, ethnicity, and social identity can also influence the prevalence of drug use in sport. But, despite the many pressures to conform to the ideals and traditions of sport, there has been no reduction in use. This is because the decision to take drugs involves a process of cognitive ‘re-framing’ where simple cost-benefit logic is replaced with the intuitive, inexorable drive to excel.

In summary, from a cognitive and evolutionary viewpoint, the decision to use drugs to boost sporting performance has little to do with morality, and even less to do with the severity of the punishment. It has more to do with the intuitive rationalizations accompanying the need to transcend ones ‘natural’ limits. We believe this better explains why 1) otherwise morally sound athletes would want to take banned drugs, 2) severe sanctions do not deter drug use, and 3) officials react to increasing positive drug tests by advocating more punitive suspensions, even when they failed to work in the first place. The reality is that athletes do not believe they have done anything wrong; they have just arrived at the playing field on equal terms.

[1] Andreoni, J. and A. Sanchez (2014), “Do beliefs justify actions or do actions justify beliefs? An experiment on stated beliefs, revealed beliefs, and social-image manipulation (No. w20649). National Bureau of Economic Research, pp. 1-47.

Aaron C.T. Smith

Aaron C.T. Smith

Aaron is a Professor at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, Melbourne, Australia. His research focuses on beliefs and the management of psychological, organizational and policy change in business, sport, health, religion and society. Aaron’s most recent books include ‘Cognitive Mechanisms of Belief Change’, ‘Thinking about Religion: Extending the Cognitive Science of Religion‘, and ‘Rethinking Drugs in Sport: Why the War on Drugs in Sport will Never be Won.

Bob Stewart

Bob Stewart

Bob Stewart is Professor of Sport Policy in the College of Sport and Exercise Science at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. Bob has a special interest in player regulation in professional team sports, and the ways in which the forces of neoliberalism and hyper-commercialism shape the structure and conduct of contemporary sport. Bob is the author of ‘Sport Funding and Finance’, and ‘Rethinking Drug use in Sport: Why the War will Never be Won.’

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