When Lance Armstrong was found guilty of doping a few years ago, the sports world was aghast. For almost a decade, he had dominated cycling so thoroughly that the thought of anyone else winning bordered on ridiculous. Few had guessed that he had done it by cheating, and many found it hard to believe, even after Armstrong himself owned up to his dishonesty.
Part of what was so perplexing about the realization was how it rubbed up against Armstrong's public persona, which painted the athlete as exemplary, largely because of his ties to Livestrong, the largest athlete-founded charity in the world. His story was also inspirational: His record-breaking string of victories came immediately after he had beaten life-threatening testicular cancer.
But for all the confusion, there might actually have been something of an explanation. While no one knows precisely what went through this mind or motivated him, there was at least one thing that could have hinted at what drove Armstrong to cheat: He was a winner.
"Winning seems to have this strange effect on people," said Amos Schurr, a professor of psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. "When people succeed in competition against others, it seems to compromise their ethics. It makes them more likely to cheat afterwards."
Schurr, who has taken an interest in exploring what drives people toward dishonest behavior, has long suspected that there might be something insidious about competition. Specifically, he has wondered if people who succeed when pitted against others are more prone to cheat. And he has reason to believe he's on to something.
This month, he, along with Ilana Ritov, who teaches psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published a new study that sheds some light on his hypothesis. The two put dozens of participants through a series of four experiments in order to see how they acted in the aftermath of winning and losing various competitions. The results were telling.
In the first experiment, Schurr and Ritov split 86 students into groups of two, and then had them compete against one another in a game in which it was impossible to cheat. The participants watched as a series of objects appeared and then disappeared from a screen, and then were asked to guess which objects appeared most often and how many objects appeared in all. One person won and one person lost in each group.
The participants were then rearranged into new groups of two, this time to play another game in which it was easy to cheat. One person threw two dice while the other, unable to see them, waited to hear the outcome. The person who threw the dice was rewarded with as many coins as he or she rolled; the other, meanwhile, was paid the difference between the maximum possible roll of 12 and what their counterpart has reported.
If the rollers wanted more coins, all they had to do was lie about the outcome. And they did — that is, those who had won in the game before did. The winners claimed to have rolled an average of almost 9, while the losers said they rolled an average closer to 6.5. That might sound like a matter of chance, but it's not, Schurr explains, because the outcome of rolling two dice tends to converge to 7 very quickly.
"If everybody were honest, the average would have been very close to 7," said Schurr. "The winners were clearly inflating their scores — and at the expense of their fellow participants!"
In a second experiment, the researchers showed how even just a memory of winning can induce dishonest behavior. Instead of putting the participants through a competition, they asked them to recall one of two things: either a time when they had won when competing against others, or a time when they had achieved a goal, an absolute rather than relative victory. And, once more, winning seemed to nudge people to cheat. Those who remembered a time when they had beaten someone else claimed to roll an average of 9, while those who remembered achieving a goal said they rolled an average of just over 7.
"It was remarkable how it held, how the people who thought of themselves as winners were then dishonest in the next game," said Schurr. "And it wasn't just for their own gain — it was at the expense of the other participants, who were given fewer coins as a result."
The last two experiments showed how the propensity to cheat changes when people aren't pitted against one another. In one, the participants played a lottery, producing winners by chance instead of merit; in the other, the participants had to answer at least 10 out of 20 trivia questions correctly, competing, in theory, against themselves instead of others. And in both, Schurr and Ritov found that the people who won — the lottery or the trivia challenge — didn't end up cheating in the dice game. The winners, in fact, actually reported lower rolls than the losers.
This, Schurr explains, adds a telling caveat to his theory. The problem, he says, seems to be a very specific type of success: the kind that involves social comparison, the sort that means doing better than others, instead of just doing well. And he believes it all boils down to a sense of entitlement that beating others in sports, business, politics, or any other form of head-to-head competition seems to foster in victors.
"Dishonesty is a pretty complex phenomenon — there are all sorts of mechanisms behind it," said Schurr. "But people who win competitions feel more entitled, and that feeling of entitlement is what predicts dishonesty."
Once a winner, always a winner
In other words, when people win against others, they tend to think they're better, or more deserving. And that thinking helps them justify cheating, since, after all, they're the rightful heir to whatever throne is next — "If I'm better than you, I might as well make sure I win, because I deserve to anyway."
And this problem can have a compounding effect, because cheaters, research has shown, tend to win more often. The self-perpetuating cycle looks something like this, according to Schurr: The more people win, the more likely they are to cheat; and the more they cheat, the more likely they are to win.
In this context, Armstrong's extended cheating spell might make more sense. Long before Armstrong was taking steroids, he was placing first in competitions (he was already a professional triathlete at the age of 16). There are signs he might have begun to bend the rules before doping — a former rider alleges that Armstrong bribed him to let him win the final leg of a race in 1993. And while there are, of course, many other potential reasons for why Armstrong decided to cheat his way to seven consecutive Tour de France titles, it's not unreasonable to think that he was caught in the cyclical pattern Schurr described — cheating because of his winning ways, and winning because of his cheating ways.
It's telling that in the aftermath of the scandal, Armstrong admitted guilt, but also said he never felt like he was cheating. "I viewed it as a level playing field," he told Oprah Winfrey in 2013.
The decisions made by many athletes before and after Armstrong seem to tell a similar story. The allure was serious enough that the 1990s are often referred to as the Steroids Era. Baseball players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, some of the most prominent figures associated with that era, were already successful in their own right, and might have jumped on the opportunity to prolong or ensure that success. When it worked, they continued to ride that train, as others after them have. More than a dozen professional baseball players, many of whom were among the world's best, were suspended in 2013 for taking performance enhancing drugs.
The wrong kind of competition
Competition, however, touches far more than games and sports. It is, for better or worse, a staple of the entirety of modern Western civilization. And that might be perpetuating its fair share of societal injustices, too.
There's reason to believe, for instance, that this phenomenon could be perpetuating social and income inequality. There is ample research, after all, that shows people who win from a socioeconomic perspective tend to not only continue to win, but also bend the rules a bit while doing it. A 2011 study found, rather unambiguously, that rich people are more likely to "take valued goods from others," "lie in a negotiation," "cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize," and "endorse unethical behavior at work." A 2010 study, meanwhile, concluded that people from lower socioeconomic classes are more likely to curb their behavior to benefit the greater good than those who belong to higher socioeconomic classes. Poorer families, in other words, are more community driven, which might be undercutting their chances of personal gain.
The notion that competition has deleterious effects is nothing new. In 2004, Andrei Shleifer, an economist at Harvard University, published a paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research titled 'Does Competition Destroy Ethical Behavior?' In it, he argues that unethical behavior we readily attribute to "greed" — like corruption or the use of child labor — are actually the result of market competition.
"My point is not to excuse or condemn any or all of these practices, but merely to pinpoint the crucial role of competition," Shleifer wrote.
But the idea that it's not competition itself that breeds cheaters, but rather a specific kind of competition, which awards relative instead of absolute success, is pretty novel. It's the battle between two companies for someone's business, the fight between politicians to win more people's votes, the race to see who can do something the fastest, in other words, that's problematic.
Schurr, who calls competition "one of the greatest inventions of economists," doesn't believe it's inherently bad. But he does think it could use some reining in. He wonders whether we might want to consider awarding more people — financially or otherwise — for doing something well, instead of doing something better than others.
"We don't consider enough what happens after competition ends, how it affects people, business and politics," he said. "If we did, we probably would be designing more competitions that don't pit people and entities against each other."
We also might find ourselves with fewer cheaters.