Deciding to Dope

Recently three things came across my desk nearly simultaneously. One was a report that Lance Armstrong had told a BBC interviewer: “If you take me back to 1995, when [doping] was completely and totally pervasive, I’d probably do it again. People don’t like to hear that.” (Rapp, 2015) Second, was a report that two MMA fighters had both tested positive for doping following a match….not a huge surprise since the MMA has had around 45 fighters suspended for steroid usage in recent years. Third, and the most interesting, was an academic look at doping in sports in the form of a working paper from Harvard’s Safra Center by Dimant and Deutscher.

A reading of the paper makes it clear that academic work in this area is in its nascent stages and that hard data is difficult to come by. But the paper makes several interesting points. One is that just as economic corruption has obvious negative externalities for the economies in which it exists, doping also carries negative externalities both for the doping athletes (e.g., lasting health damage) and for the sports themselves (e.g., loss of media and fan interest).

Why do athletes dope? Some academics have constructed economic models of doping decision making which Dimant and Deutscher summarize. Certainly there is value in thinking about doping from this perspective. If we can increase both the penalties for doping and the odds that dopers will be caught, we will likely reduce the level of doping in any sport. This will not be cheap. One estimate is that we are already spending up to $500 million per year worldwide for antidoping exams. (Maennig, 2014)

Naturally, reducing the likelihood of being caught and/or increasing the potential benefits of doping will likely increase its occurrence. So many sports are high profile with lots of money and reputational benefits at stake. Importantly, sports are obviously very competitive ecosystems where even a slight edge can make a meaningful difference in results. I think of parallels in the hedge fund industry, where millions of dollars are at stake, and where it is difficult to get an honest edge over other bright and incredibly hard-working hedge fund managers. As in sports, these factors make cheating (via resort to insider trading) incredibly attractive.

Dimant and Deutscher also discuss behavioral factors, of the type that many of our Ethics Unwrapped videos discuss, that may play a role in athletes’ decisions to dope. One factor they mention is ego depletion. The general notion here is that people have limited amounts of self-control. When athletes deplete their self-control through rigorous training, they deplete the same sources needed to control and restrain thoughts and impulses, to persist in cognitive tasks, and the like. They may therefore be more likely to give into the temptation to dope and make similar decisions driven by short-term rather than long-term interests. As Dimant and Deutscher note, “ego depletion sustainably taxes self-control resources, leading to more automatic and less [thoughtful] decisions.” When people are under pressure to fully exercise their self-control, they are necessarily especially vulnerable to making unethical decisions.

Dimant and Deutscher also note the social pressure to dope. There is substantial evidence that crime and other wrongdoing have severe contagion effects. (Gino et al., 2009; Glaeser et al., 1996) Because of the conformity bias, the more people who are doping (or whom an athlete perceives to be doping), the more “acceptable” this conduct will appear. Contagion effects have been noted in individuals’ decisions to smoke, to use drugs, and to commit crimes, so their impact on doping in the sports world should not surprise.

Organizational pressures are also critical and in many sports organizations (Lance Armstrong’s cycling teams for example), the pressure to “dope along to get along” was tremendous.

Loss aversion can also tend to cause people to cheat to avoid losses in ways that they would not cheat to achieve what they perceive to be gains. So, for example, an athlete might dope to avoid being demoted from a major league to a lesser league in his or her sport. Dimant and Deutscher reference something called the “endgame effect,” whereby athletes may dope in order to avoid the inevitable decline in skills that inevitably comes with age (or injury). Evidence of the endgame effect comes from studies demonstrating that athletes who dope tend, on average, to be significantly older than their clean opponents. (Buchel et al.)

Doping is just one kind of corruption, but given the high profile of sports in general, it is a particularly corrosive kind.

References

Berno Buchel et al., Nobody’s Innocent: The Role of Customers in the Doping Dilemma, Journal of Sports Economics (forthcoming).

Eugen Dimant & Christian Deutscher, The Economics of Corruption in Sports: The Special Case of Doping, Edmond J. Safra Working Papers No. 55 (Jan. 20, 2015).

Francesca Gino et al., Contagion and Differentiation in Unethical Behavior: The Effect of One Bad Apple on the Barrel, 20 Psychological Science 393 (2009).

Edward Glaeser et al., Crime and Social Interactions, 111 Quarterly Journal of Economics 507 (1006).

MMA Steroid Busts at http://www.cagepotato.com/mma-steroid-busts-definitive-timeline/.

Wolfgang Maennig, Inefficiency of the Anti-Doping System: Cost Reduction Proposals, 49 Substance Use & Abuse 1201 (2014).

Timothy Rapp, Lance Armstrong Speaks Out on Doping, Lifetime Ban in BBC Interview, BleacherReport (Jan. 26, 2015).

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