Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Psychology of Cheating

Tennis has long had a reputation for being a genteel sport in which honesty, deportment and courtesy are central features. The lasting influence of this perspective can be seen in the readiness with which fans criticize the bad behavior of some of the pros. In any other sport, Andy Roddick might be called passionate when he argues with the Chair and becomes bitingly sarcastic in interviews. In tennis he is called grotesque and a boor. Or maybe those are just the names I call him.

Part of tennis' genteel and polite historical legacy is the expectation that players will not cheat. We expect tennis players to raise their hand in apology for winning a point on a net call. We expect them to call their own lines honestly, like Magnus Norman once famously did in a match against Guga, conceding the loss. (Hence the outrage against Henin and Handgate). We shake hands at the net regardless of the intensity of the passion just displayed on the court. We applaud our opponent’s moments of unusually excellent play – even in the midst of a heated contest. And we expect tennis pros to be humble in interviews, not show up crowing about being the best in the world.

I am fascinated by this aspect of tennis’ lasting cultural mores. But I am even more intrigued by the fact that so many folks have the guts to challenge them. And I include in this group the liars/cheats who don’t give a crap about seeming uncouth – they just want to win. Yet we wonder why Junior tennis has such a sickening reputation when it comes to lying and cheating. With role models like these, what are the younger players to do?

The psychology of cheating has become the lifework of David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston. DeSteno believes that the decision to cheat is often based on a gauging of short-term (e.g., winning) vs. long-term (e.g., destroying club relationships) gains. He believes that many people struggle with making the more virtuous choice vs. the less virtuous one. And he believes that outside factors often sway the pendulum from one direction to another. Like say maybe a shiny trophy?

Interestingly, DeSteno suggests that low-level cheating may be both natural and even productive in certain situations, based as it is on the brain’s proclivity for finding simple and practical shortcuts. He believes that some everyday forms of cheating are often not done with conscious deliberation. For example, the decision to use an envelope from your workplace to mail a personal letter is the kind of parsimonious quickie solution that your brain may allow, with no conscious thought that doing so is actually an act of theft.

However such commonplace petty thievery does not naturally lead to gross fraudulent behavior. On the contrary, deliberate dishonesty is a conscious strategy, often committed for personal and emotional gains. In other words, Bernie Madoff did not start his thieving career by stealing an envelope. He was a con man, plain and simple, and his thieving was done with conscious intent. Same for those who colluded with him.

The decision to cheat on such a large scale is a conscious and deliberate choice, with motives that are often both personal and emotional. For example, some people cheat because they resent having to obey a particular regulation, e.g., people who continue to text while driving. Such individuals are fully aware that they are breaking the law. They just don’t think it should apply to them and will rebel for as long as they can get away with doing so. Never mind the consequences for the rest of us on the road.

Psychologists believe that the deepest motivation to cheat stems from the perception that others are being unfair and have given you a raw deal. With such beliefs, cheaters justify their own behavior and even project it onto others. Such individuals convince themselves that their success is due not to the fact they bent and twisted the rules to suit themselves, but to their own superior abilities. Once they buy into this belief, there may be no turning back.

To apply this to tennis, as cheaters like my opponents gain more and more success, they increasingly manage to convince themselves of their own superior skills. They’re winning not because they are playing at the wrong NTRP level, but because they are the best. This belief then gets reinforced with each additional success. Their pride in their accomplishment further reinforces the cheating behavior.

When it comes to tennis, I think there may be an alternative explanation for the lying about NTRP ratings that DeSteno has not considered. Maybe some of these liars/cheats are just cowards who are not brave enough to face real competition. They play against lower level teams because they don’t have the cojones to face their true peers. Or maybe I’m just pissed that they keep kicking my ass.
(Part 2 of 2)

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