Why the public hates performance-enhancing drugs, and what it means for athletes

Credit: Chris Gash

Alice G. Walton | Jul 05, 2017

Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) continue to make headlines—and end athletic careers. Barry Bonds, wrapped up in baseball’s steroids scandal, has been excluded from Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame; Lance Armstrong was stripped of seven Tour de France wins after he admitted to PED use; and the entire Russian track-and-field Olympic team was banned from the 2016 Rio games because of an ongoing doping scandal.

Chicago Booth’s Daniel Bartels, postdoctoral researcher Justin F. Landy, and PhD candidate Daniel K. Walco looked at the public’s feelings about PED use, and the reasons why most people feel that PEDs are taboo. Their findings could help lawmakers and leagues respond to doping scandals, and help athletes polish their personal brands.

The researchers tested the importance of fairness: if there were no competitive advantage for an athlete to take a PED, because all athletes were taking them, would people still oppose its use? Study participants, drawn from the internet, read a blurb about a fictional amateur weightlifter, Joe, who was considering using steroids for the first time. In some versions, the steroids would have given Joe a clear advantage over other players—but not in other cases. Participants rated, on a scale of 1 to 9, how wrong it was for Joe to use steroids, with 9 being “extremely wrong.” They said it would have been wrong for Joe to use steroids in any case, but particularly so if it would have given him an advantage. In that case, their rating approached an 8, on average.

To probe this, the researchers had a different set of participants consider one of 10 other scenarios, including whether Joe was a competitive or recreational athlete, and whether the substance in question was illegal or prohibited by the rules, had health consequences, or affected the amount Joe had to work out.

Four most important factors in people’s opposition to steroids

  1. Are steroids banned by competition rules?
  2. Are they illegal?
  3. Are they risky for the athletes?
  4. Do they give the athletes an advantage over others?

Few of these issues mattered: participants’ judgments about the wrongness of PED use only changed based on whether or not the substances were prohibited and whether they posed a risk to the user. This led the researchers to conclude that while people respond to perceived violations of fairness, they respond more to laws and regulations and to health risks. Their findings fit into a larger theory in psychology, 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.

The findings could have some relevance to legislators and league managers who want to affect public opinion about PED use. “Understanding why people are so opposed to this can tell us something about how you could present a case to ratchet public opposition up or down,” says Landy, who adds that it may also interest athletes concerned about their personal brands. “Even athletes who don’t enhance can use what we’ve learned to more effectively communicate to the public why they don’t [use PEDs], and why that matters.”