Cheating Is an Awful Thing for Other People to Do

Marion Jones won Olympic gold in 2000. In June, after a comeback, she tested positive for an endurance booster.
Marion Jones won Olympic gold in 2000. In June, after a comeback, she tested positive for an endurance booster. (By Kevin Frayer -- Canadian Press Via Associated Press)
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

Both athletes were stars. Both faltered, then staged dramatic comebacks -- displaying the tenacity that separates heroes from also-rans. Both now face drug charges that could end their careers.

After winning five medals at the 2000 Olympic Games but failing miserably at the 2004 Games, sprinter Marion Jones won the 100-meter race at the U.S. National Championships in June. But a urine sample taken there has come back positive for erythropoietin, an endurance booster, according to reports over the weekend.

After falling to 11th place in the 2006 Tour de France, Floyd Landis shot back into contention with a gritty ride in Stage 17 through the Alps. "I was very, very disappointed yesterday for a little while," Landis told the Associated Press at the time. "Today I thought I could show that at least I would keep fighting."

Landis went on to win, but two urine samples collected that day came back positive for artificial testosterone. His title may be stripped once his appeal is reviewed. Commentators are bemoaning what cheating is doing to sports.

Talk about cheating usually has a ring to it, and that ring comes from having a high moral tone. In this, it is fair to say, most people are hypocrites.

You and I may never get to ride in the Tour de France, but a great many studies show that most human beings are open to -- and extraordinarily adept at -- bending moral rules when it is convenient.

Most people report telling lies on a fairly regular basis and being largely untroubled by them. When pressed, people say their lies are innocuous.

Nor can the world be divided cleanly into cheaters and honest people: A variety of ingenious experiments show that large majorities of people can be induced to do the wrong thing, depending on the circumstances.

Among the most potent motivators to cheat is the sense that one has lost the limelight, is falling behind and will be judged harshly. People are also more likely to cheat if they think other people are cheating.

One experiment asked volunteers to perform a simple mechanical task -- track a rapidly moving light beam with a stylus. Volunteers were told (by someone they thought was another volunteer but was really part of the research team) that it was necessary to cheat to get a decent score.

After five practice trials, all the volunteers were told that they were not doing well and that they needed to make rapid improvement in order to catch up to the others. Then they were asked to keep track of their scores and were left alone. Volunteers did not know researchers were independently monitoring the scores.

More than three-quarters of the subjects lied about their performance. Volunteers who had done especially poorly on the practice runs seemed more likely to cheat, compared with those who did well. Carl I. Malinowski, an associate professor in marketing at Pace University in New York, said personality traits, anxiety levels, temptation and situational factors all played roles.

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