Why do atheletes cheat?

August 17, 2008 at 2:04 pm (science) (, , , )

This very interesting article by a scientist who was a former world class cyclist discusses why taking drugs is likely to be the norm for many high end athletes.  Why?  Because the system favours it.  This can, surprisingly, be demonstrated very easily with mathematics known as “Game Theory” (don’t worry, the article is free of maths).

Roughly speaking, taking beneficial drugs (“doping”) is worth it because it both increases your chances of winning, and decreases your chances of being cut from the team.  Playing by the rules is the “suckers” option, since your chances of getting cought are so low.

Of course, the analysis is somewhat simplistic.  In reality, whether someone should (rationally) cheat depends on their skill level, whether their teammates are cheating, whether their team supports the cheating, and more.  The suggestions for fixing the cheating problem do address these issues, however.  They include: punishing the whole team if one is found cheating, lifetime bans for the cheater, and allowing cheaters to speak out after the event without punishment.  This will increase the chances of being caught, and decrease the likelihood of teams having “organised” cheating.  It will also help to identify teams that persistently cheat so that they can be more extensively tested.

The theory is based on the “prisoners dilemma”.  In sports terms, the problem can be written in terms of a “payoff” (i.e. money) that the athlete may expect depending on whether they cheat, and whether their opponent does.  If both players don’t cheat, they both have even chance to win.  If they both cheat, then they both have an even chance to win but might get caught.  But if one cheats and the other doesn’t, the cheater will most likely win and most likely not get caught.

Prisoners dilemma for athletes: Payoff is the prize for winning multiplied by the probability of winning it, minus the penalty for being caughht cheating, multiplied by the chance of being caught.  Your action is on the left.
Your action Opponent action
Don’t Cheat Cheat
Don’t Cheat $2M $0.5
Cheat $3M $1

From this, it is clear that whatever the opponent does, it is best to cheat. The dilemma is that if neither player cheats, then they are both better off than if they both cheat! Of course, the simplest solution is to reduce the payoff for cheaters, so that whatever the opponent does, your payoff is higher for not cheating.

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