What’s behind the taboo of doping in professional sports?

Researchers find that it’s not a question of fairness, but rather that people oppose breaking the rules and worry about potential health risks to athletes

The allure of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) has tainted competitive sports for decades and shattered the public images of many superstars. Lance Armstrong was stripped of seven Tour de France wins after he admitted using PEDs, Maria Sharapova was suspended from tennis competition for more than a year after admitting to failing a drug test at the Australian Open, and Barry Bonds was excluded from Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

The use of PEDs elicits widespread public opposition, yet there has been little research to explore what underlies these judgments. Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business examined this question comprehensively, across 13 studies, and find that while people are concerned with fairness, they are ultimately more upset by breaking the rules and the potentially serious health risks for the athletes.

Daniel M. Bartels In the study, “What’s Wrong with Using Steroids? Exploring Whether and Why People Oppose the Use of Performance Enhancing Drugs,” Chicago Booth’s Daniel M. Bartels, postdoctoral researcher Justin F. Landy and PhD candidate Daniel K. Walco, looked into the reasons why most people view steroid use as wrong and concluded that people care more about rules and safety than they do about leveling the playing field.

To explore this phenomenon, the researchers tested the importance of fairness, and then tested the influence of 10 potential drivers of opposition to PEDs.

In the first phase of their study, the researchers asked participants a series of questions about a fictional weightlifter named “Joe.” In this fictional scenario, Joe was considering using steroids for the first time. Half of the scenarios said that the steroids would give Joe a significant advantage over other weightlifters, while the other versions said the PEDs would not give him an advantage. Participants were asked to rate how wrong it was for Joe to use steroids on a scale from 1 to 9, with 9 being “extremely wrong.”  The respondents overwhelmingly said that it would be wrong for Joe to use steroids, particularly if they gave him an unfair advantage.

The researchers delved deeper into why people oppose steroids in a separate experiment with a new set of participants. Each participant received one of 10 scenarios that provided more details about Joe. The details included whether he was a competitive or recreational athlete, whether the substance in question was illegal or prohibited by the rules, whether the drug had health consequences and whether it affected the amount of time Joe had to work out.

Yet, despite learning more about Joe and his PED use, participants’ opinions on steroid use only changed based on two factors: whether the substances were prohibited and if they posed a risk to the user.

The findings fit into a larger theory in psychology called Social Domain Theory, which suggests that people may object to a particular concept because it breaks a rule of social convention, morality or prudence. Here, the use of PEDs seems to break all three.

Understanding why the public is so opposed to PEDs can help lawmakers and leagues respond to doping scandals and provide guidance for tainted athletes on how to resurrect their reputation and personal brand.