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How Psychologists Can Help Curb Cheating in Sports

The trick is to prevent cheating before it occurs

This week the St. Louis Cardinals were accused of hacking into the computer database of the Houston Astros, and British distance runner Mo Farah, who won two Olympic Gold medals and became the darling of the London Olympics came under suspicion for missing drug tests (his coach, Alberto Salazar, is being investigated for illegal doping practices).

It seems as if every week a new scandal involving cheating and antisocial behavior in sports is capturing the headlines, toppling one hero after another from their pedestals in our hearts and minds. Offenses range from relatively mild (e.g., the Patriot’s Tom Brady and sanctions for deflate-gate) to staggering in their audacity and scope (e.g., Lance Armstrong’s years of systematic doping during the Tour de France).

While the existence of cheaters in sports is hardly shocking in and of itself, such discoveries can be extremely personal and emotionally upsetting for fans of the specific teams or athletes whose schemes are exposed. For example, a cancer survivor recently told me that Lance Armstrong had been such a significant source of hope, strength, and inspiration during their own long months of chemotherapy, and they experienced the revelations about his doping and cheating as an emotionally scarring event: “It felt like a best friend had totally betrayed my trust.”

Until now, the primary way governing bodies of athletic organizations have battled cheating and antisocial behavior in sports is by spending efforts and resources on strategies and programs designed to catch the cheaters, all while cheating athletes and teams continue spending their own resources on developing ever more sophisticated methods to avoid being caught.

This cheating-in-sports arms race has been going on for decades and is likely to continue for decades more because it fails to get to the heart of the issue—the psychological willingness of athletes and teams to engage in cheating behavior to begin with.

As a result, psychologists have been experimenting with a radically different approach—reducing antisocial behavior in sports by intervening before the cheating actually occurs.

Dr. Maria Kavussanu from the University of Birmingham, and her colleagues, recently published an article in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology that explored whether priming athletes' moral identity (i.e., getting athletes to contemplate whether they consider themselves moral people) could make them less likely to engage in antisocial behavior.

Antisocial Behavior, Cheating and Guilt

Participants in the study, all athletes, were divided into two groups. The first group was presented 9 words relating to moral identity such as ‘fair’ and ‘honest’ while the second (control) group was presented neutral words relating to household objects. Both groups were asked to think about what each word meant to them and write a short story about themselves using each of the words. They were also asked to circle the words within their stories once they completed them.

Athletes in the moral identity group reported being significantly more likely to experience guilty feelings if they engaged in antisocial behavior during a game and therefore significantly less likely to engage in such behavior compared to athletes in the control group. Further, athletes in the moral identity group were significantly more likely to feel it was morally wrong to engage in antisocial behavior in sporting situations than athletes in the control group.

Researchers concluded that priming an athlete’s moral identity is likely to trigger greater feelings of anticipated guilt and consequently, to increase the likelihood of moral behavior and reduce incidents of cheating and antisocial behavior.

Indeed, guilt is a far more powerful emotion than many of us realize, as it can influence our behavior in both conscious and unconscious ways (read Ten Things You Didn't Know about Guilt).

While it might not be practical to have athletes write essays about morality before every game or competition, the idea of creating psychological interventions on a grand scale is not outlandish. Consider that athletes are already required to do far more intrusive things before and after competitions (e.g., pee into cups while under observation) than anything a psychological intervention might require.

When and how such efforts could be scaled up is probably some months or years away, but the novelty of the approach finally presents an option to curbing cheating behavior in sports at its source—the hearts and minds of the athletes themselves.

For more about how guilt impacts our daily lives and what you can do to avoid the negative consequences of guilty feelings, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

Watch my TED Talk to learn about boosting your emotional strength.

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Copyright 2015 Guy Winch

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