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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)

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But people who do the wrong thing are fully aware of what they have done, right? Not always.

"We have a whole quiver full of rationalizations," said C. Daniel Batson, a psychologist at the University of Kansas who has closely studied cheating.

Batson does not know what happened in the Tour de France, but he does understand how athletes in general can rationalize a decision to cheat. All they need to do is think of a drug or a steroid as a relatively small offense that is evened out by other factors.

"We're very good at explaining to ourselves why we are doing something," he said. "Maybe I have a cold and I know I am going to underperform. Well, I have trained all this time, and in order to compensate for this misrepresentation in my performance . . ."

When Batson asked volunteers to divide up an interesting task and a boring task with another person, most people chose the interesting task and assigned the boring task to the other person. The interesting task carried a bonus of $30.

Batson then handed volunteers a coin, to suggest a more equitable way to divide the tasks. Half the volunteers agreed to flip the coin. But something strange happened when the volunteers were left alone in a room. Whichever way the coin landed, people ended up choosing the better task. Batson tried to label the coin, so there would be no ambiguity about what heads and tails stood for. Mysteriously, when people were left alone, the coins still invariably pointed toward giving the boring task to the other person.

Batson wondered what people would do if the unpleasant task was not boring but something painful, like receiving an electric shock. It made absolutely no difference.

Volunteers later told Batson that they would normally have agreed to take on the painful task themselves and spare the other person, but electric shocks were the only kind of pain they just could not handle.

"When you are talking about a moral issue, it is something we feel we ought to do. But the fact we label it as 'moral' means it is probably not something we want to do," Batson said. "So we are in a bind of wanting to do what we don't want to do."

"Moral language is really the language of victims," he added. "We use it more to condemn other people's behavior than we do to motivate our own."


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