The Psychology of Cheating in Sports

Hands holding a football while deflating it.

There’s a long history of athletes who have cheated. The examples are so rampant that it’s difficult to even summarize the presence of cheating in sports.

Three of the major American professional sports have been impacted. Major League Baseball saw the Black Sox Scandal in the early part of the 20th century, and in the later part of the century, doping literally altered record books. National Basketball Association referee Tim Donaghy was investigated by the FBI for betting on games that he officiated. Perhaps most recognizable to sports fans may be the National Football League’s controversy “Deflategate,” in which quarterback Tom Brady allegedly ordered deflated footballs used in the 2014-15 playoffs.

Cheating also extends to other sports, of course. In an infamous example, Soviet athlete Boris Onishchenko was banned for life from sports after he was caught electrically wiring his fencing weapon to go off at will in the 1976 Summer Olympics. Even more infamous was Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, which stripped the cyclist of multiple achievements, including seven Tour de France titles.

Few people question whether cheating has impacted sports. But why have there been so many examples? What exactly causes athletes to cheat? This article takes a brief look at the psychology of cheating in sports.

Key Factors in the Psychology of Cheating in Sports

Who do people cheat in sports? Psychological research has provided insight into the sheer competitive nature of sports and the ethical complications of cheating. Those two factors offer perspective into why athletes are willing to cheat.

Emphasis on Winning

It might be an understatement to say that sports can be “competitive.” In fact, sports can be an important part of culture, according to Howard Giles in “The International Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication.” For instance, in the words of a cultural historian Jacques Barzun, which are inscribed in the Baseball Hall of Fame, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Giles described how people “live in a globalized, sports-saturated world” that can put cultures and their values on display. Sports can also change the way that more specific groups interact and find their identity, including athletes, coaches, teams, and fans. Fans can be so involved that they have pregame anxiety and emotional experiences during games. They may even, without reason, blame losses on biased officiating (which can actually explain home field advantage) or cheating.

The stakes are high, and that’s especially the case at professional levels of sport. Winning is a necessary ingredient in the pursuit of excellence, and, as a result, athletes can take that further than others might. It’s reminiscent of the cliché that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

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“Competitive sport often places individuals in conflicting situations that emphasize winning over sportsperson-ship and fair play,” according to the “Handbook of Sports Psychology.” “It would be wrong, however, to attribute this to the competitive nature of sport.” There are other factors at play. The next topic works hand-in-hand with the emphasis on winning to explain how athletes may turn to cheating.

The Ego and Moral Functioning

The concept of achievement goals is linked to potential cheating in sports. In task- and ego-oriented goals, there’s a fundamental difference in how athletes think of themselves and why they compete. Task-oriented athletes focus on hard work and self-development, while ego-oriented athletes are focused on being better than everyone else and believe skill to be a matter of innate ability.

According to the “Handbook of Sports Psychology,” studies have demonstrated relationships between task and ego orientations with sportsmanship and moral functioning. Compared to high task-oriented athletes, research points to how high ego-oriented athletes have lower sportsmanship, more self-reported cheating, and endorsement of cheating. Ego orientation can predict lower moral functioning.

Moral functioning can even take an unexpected turn with some sports cheaters. From research in Attitudes and Social Cognition, the notion that cheaters feel guilty after engaging in unethical behavior simply isn’t true. Over six experiments, unethical behaviors not only failed to trigger negative affect, but they triggered positive affect. Those types of behaviors can lead to a “cheater’s high.”

“These findings challenge existing models of ethical decision-making and offer cause for concern,” the study’s authors said. “Many ethical decisions are made privately and are difficult to monitor. Individuals who recognize, perhaps from experience, that they can derive both material and psychological rewards from engaging in unethical behavior may be powerfully motivated to behave unethically.”

Why Do People Cheat in Sports?

The psychology of cheating in sports is a complicated topic, and researchers are learning more about what drives people to violate the rules, use performance-enhancing drugs, or take part in some other method of cheating. However, the fundamental reason why people cheat in sports isn’t complex at all.

Athletes want to win. At the highest levels of sports, the difference between first and second place is often millions of dollars and a significant amount of fame. As a result, some athletes may believe winning really is the only thing. To them, the risk of getting caught and being labeled a cheater is worth the money and glory that being the best brings.

Ask Lance Armstrong. He lost everything, it may appear, after being stripped of his achievements and experiencing costly legal battles. Armstrong told USA Today that he had paid more than $100 million in legal costs, and that came before he settled a $100 million lawsuit with the federal government for just $5 million. However, even those numbers may be significantly lower than what cheating allowed him to win. According to Bloomberg in 2013, Armstrong’s riches totaled more than $218 million. At the peak of his career, he earned $28 million a year, Forbes estimated.

Was it worth it? In a BBC interview, Lance Armstrong said that if it was still 1995, he would “probably do it again.”

If you’re interested in the psychology of cheating in sports, you can learn more about sports psychology by earning your online MS in Exercise Science. You’ll receive a strong foundation in topics like exercise physiology and sports nutrition as well. Aurora University Online’s program offers two specializations in sports performance and clinical exercise. And through additional coursework and an internship or capstone experience, you’ll be prepared for either of the following industry-leading certification exams:

  • The American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) Clinical Exercise Physiologist (CEP) exam.
  • The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) exam.

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