Lessons for beating cheating

The International Association of Athletics Federations’ new president, Sebastian Coe, has pledged to restore confidence in athletics. What behavioural science insights could help him tackle doping?

Double Olympic champion and new president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Lord Coe faces a big challenge. He has to turn his campaign pledges – to beat doping cheats – into reality. He has promised more resources and funding for anti-doping and an independent unit to avoid allegations of conflicts of interest. 

Daniel Effron, ethics expert and Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, has two pieces of advice for any leader set on beating cheating.

1. The cheat-at-the-end-effect 

Could it be that extra resource is not necessarily the key to tackling cheating in sport? What if resources were simply put to more efficient use? 

When opportunities to cheat are scarce, people are more likely to seize them, according to Dr Effron, who this month published research on this topic in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Dr Effron explains: “People struggle between wanting to be ethical and wanting to satisfy their self-interest, so many people will cheat a little bit when they can get away with it, but they won’t cheat to the maximum extent possible. Our research suggests that the self-interest motive is stronger when future cheating opportunities are limited.”

He adds: “If you have a large number of chances to cheat undetected, you’re less motivated to cheat because you feel like you could do it at any time. But when it’s suddenly your last chance to cheat, you feel like you’d kick yourself if you passed up the opportunity. So when people have several chances to cheat, they’re more likely to act on the last one. We call it the cheat-at-the-end effect.”

What does this mean for organisations that want to reduce dishonesty but have limited resources to monitor employees? In athletics, if resource limitations mean sportspeople can’t be tested at every heat, or at every competition, they could be tested at their final heat, or their last training day. Dr Effron’s research suggests that this is when dishonesty is most likely.

2. Fostering a cheat-less environment

How can leaders – in politics, business or sports – create an environment where it is better not to cheat? 

Dr Effron suggests that small changes to situations can make it more psychologically difficult for people to cheat. 

Firstly, he says people cheat less when “they feel it taints their self-image”. Dr Effron points to the work of Gabrielle Adams, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, entitled, ‘When cheating would make you a cheater: implicating the self prevents unethical behaviour which demonstrates how the use of certain language implicates self-image’. 

Dr Effron comments: “When leaders say ‘Don’t be a cheater’, it implies that cheating would make you a bad person. This makes it psychologically harder for people to cheat than when leaders just say ‘don’t cheat’.” When the character, nature or personality of an offender is affected, they are less likely to cheat.

Secondly, he says people cheat less when “victims are made more salient”.

People rationalise bad deeds by convincing themselves that the crime is victimless. If people are made to feel they are letting others down – family, friends and sporting fans – it is more likely that they will act honestly.  

Lord Coe told the IAAF congress that: “Clean athletes have got to know that we are in their corner.” His words emphasised that the victims of cheating are not just the fans, but other athletes too. 

These behavioural triggers are already being put to work by Lord Coe, whose language is infused with his blend of sporting know-how, commercial acumen and political experiences. His rhetoric includes emotive phrases such as “I will do everything in my human capability”. He also suggests cheating is a personal attack on the public and fellow athletes and has vowed to maintain strong values, showing trust and integrity. 

With the intelligent pooling of resources, a cheat-less environment and behavioural insights like these, Lord Coe could well bring credibility back.