The psychology of doping accusations: Which athletes raise the most suspicion?

Why do we immediately feel that “ping” of suspicion when some athletes achieve great Olympic feats? And why would certain athletes make us feel that way, while other record-breaking winners don’t inspire the same level of disbelief?

According to covariation theory, we form internal or external attributions for people’s actions based on the degrees of consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency in the behavior. Consensus is the extent to which other people would act similarly in the same situation, distinctiveness is the extent to which the target person behaves the same way in other situations, and consistency is the extent to which the target actor’s behavior is the same way every time the situation occurs.

In order to form a clear attribution for behavior, consistency must be high. When consensus and distinctiveness are low, we form internal attributions and assume that the behavior has something to do with the actor’s personality or individual traits. When consensus and distinctiveness are high, we form external attributions and assume that the behavior has something to do with the situation.

It’s easiest to illustrate this with an example. Imagine that your friend Dave has highly recommended a certain class to you, and you need to determine if this review is simply due to Dave’s personality and biased outlook, or if the class is actually good and worth taking. The table below illustrates how you might use consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency to form an accurate attribution:

To understand how this might influence our attributions of Olympic success (and our accusations of drug-related foul play), think about a record-breaking athlete who has performed incredible feats of athleticism in this summer’s Olympic Games yet has not been accused of doping: Usain Bolt.

People may have been suspicious of Usain Bolt’s incredible performances at first, but now that he has won the 100 and 200 meter sprints for two Olympic Games in a row (not to mention his incredible performance as an anchor in the 4 x 100 meter relay) and his times have been consistently phenomenal, we can easily form internal attributions for Bolt’s superior running skills rather than suspecting that he is secretly doping. No other runner can consistently run as fast as Bolt does (low consensus), he has exhibited superior running skills in multiple events, including the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, and the 4 x 100 meter relay (low distinctiveness), and he has performed well in every event in which he has competed over an extended period of time (high consistency). This leads us to attribute Bolt’s success to his athleticism and running skills.

However, this lies in stark contrast to the case of Ye Shiwen, the Chinese swimmer who was slammed with drug abuse accusations after her record-breaking 400M Individual Medley win. The main causes for suspicion were her unprecedented acceleration during the final 50 meters of her 400M race and the fact that she beat her own personal best time by a fairly large margin. In fact, most Olympic feats that cause suspicion are similarly unprecedented or far superior to that athlete’s previous performance, suggesting a low level of consistency for that particular athlete.

If consensus and distinctiveness were both low and consistency was high, as in Bolt’s case, you would be prone to make an internal attribution and say that Ye is simply a very talented swimmer. However, when consistency is low, people cannot make clear internal or external attributions, even when consensus and distinctiveness are both low as well. In these situations, people will “resort to a special kind of external or situational attribution…[in this case] an actor and situation interaction that uniquely causes the outcome” (source). In other words, because Ye’s accomplishments were so inconsistent with her previous performances, even though her prior times were still quite good, people were led to consider unique interactions between the swimmer and the situation that could possibly produce such an odd outcome rather than simply crediting the swimmer herself for her success. People typically search for these unusual Person x Situation interactions by turning to past experiences (e.g. other times that Olympians have accomplished extraordinary feats) and using these examples as a basis for comparison. In fact, John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, practically confirmed that he was engaging in this process when he controversially defended his suspicions about Ye by claiming that “history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, unbelievable, history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved” (source).

Given the fact that Ye passed all of her drug tests, I believe that she’s perfectly innocent, and I personally don’t think that the drug abuse accusations are fair to the promising young athlete. However, there is a very clear psychological reason why so many people were drawn to the suspicion that Ye had been doping, despite the fact that other similarly touted athletes didn’t raise an eyebrow. If covariation theory really is to blame, Ye could increase her consistency and thereby solidify her reputation as a skilled swimmer by continuing to demonstrate this “unbelievable” level of performance over an extended period of time.

Image of Usain Bolt by Richard Giles via Wikimedia Commons; shared under Creative Commons (CC) Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Image of Ye Shiwen via Sarah Keenan at Critical Legal Thinking; shared under Creative Commons (CC) Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

ResearchBlogging.orgKelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Volume 15, pp. 192-238). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Cheng, Patricia W. (1997). From covariation to causation: A causal power theory. Psychological Review, 104 (2), 367-405

Helpful Websites:

On Covariation Theory:
On The Olympics & Performance-Enhancing Drugs:

Why Great Olympic Feats Raise Suspicions by Ewen Callaway and Nature Magazine at Scientific American
Rope a Dope: Drug Testing in Sports Enters A More Aggressive Era by John Matson at Scientific American

29 responses to “The psychology of doping accusations: Which athletes raise the most suspicion?

  1. Pingback: The psychology of doping accusations: Which athletes raise the most suspicion? | Psychology and Brain News |

  2. American coaches accused Bolt of cheating 5 years ago. It’s easy to figure this out – Americans acuse people when said people beat Americans.

    • Yes, individual people have accused Bolt of cheating, but he has certainly not been investigated/tested to the extent that Ye Shiwen recently was. Also, 5 years ago Bolt hadn’t demonstrated “consistency” yet.

    • 1) As is the same in every other nation/culture, the difference being you pay attention to American media, so that’s what you know about. How many polish newspaper articles about sport doping have you read recently?

      2) American’s also accuse Americans who beat other nations. Followed cycling for the past 20 years?

  3. When asked, it seems straight forward: he’s not accused because he’s beliveably better. It might be by a ridiculious margin, but still believable. But what’s outlined is what that believability breaks down to and why we accept certain people’s tallent as tallent and other’s as something else. Fascinating.

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  5. I think apeparance might play a part as well.
    Bolt looks like he should run fast. He’s muscled to hell and back and about six inches taller than most of his competitors.
    Headshots of Ye Shiwen, which was pretty much all we got at first, make her look like a cute animee heroine. We don’t expect such things from cute animee heroines.
    But yes, as Daniel says, there’s a degree of jingoism going on here. Michael Phelps is surely even more disturbing?

  6. Shiwen is an athlete from a gigantic country that spends fantastic resources on its Olympic athletes, and that country has a history of doping its athletes. Bolt is not from a country with that history or resources.

    Which feels more likely: That an unknown swimmer performs in a way that strikes in-the-knows as unrealistic, or that a fantastically rich prestige garnering country with a long history of irresponsible treatment of its citizens has figured out a way to evade doping tests?

  7. citiesturnedtodust

    Since the massive cycling doping scandal exposed a large number of athletes doping and having consistent results for years without getting caught, it seems completely irrational to me to trust that any high level athlete in any venue is not drugged to the eyeballs regardless of consistency and whatnot.

  8. I think this may be over-analysis. China has a known record of cheating. It’s. Not irrational to base a question on past performance.

  9. I would love to see where this idea that China has some extraordinarily meaningful record of doping. I see nine instances of US athletes caught doping and ONE of China athletes in the lists on the wikipedia article “Use of performance-enhancing drugs in the Olympic Games.”

    Deb Kinnard and Tim Huff, are your accusations based on simple racism/nationalism or is there a factual basis somewhere — maybe some kind of statistical analysis of olympians caught doping — that I’m simply unable to find? “Common sense,” right? You don’t need to look up anything because you “just know,” I am sure…

    • Nice fact checking! I admit that I swallowed the claim that China had a history of doping without questioning it, I’m glad someone had the presence of mind to check the facts. Nice job!

    • Check your facts; after setting a bunch of records in the 90’s, numerous Chinese athletes were caught doping at the world championships. It may not have been the olympics, but china in the 90’s was as bad as the eastern block was in the 70’2 and 80’s.

    • Considering Ye Shiwen replaced a woman who was caught doping, it’s not unreasonable to be, given her extraordinary performance, somewhat suspicious. Racism & nationalism abound, but save your accusations for something that warrants it.

  10. “I personally don’t think the belief that Shiwen could not accomplish what she did without the help of drugs is fair to the promising young athlete.”

    A triple negative for the gold!

    But seriously, nice post (and you may want to edit that sentence for clarity).

  11. And I realllllly hate to nitpick here, but with Chinese names (as well as Japanese and Korean and most Vietnamese names), the family name comes first, so Ye Shiwen should be referred to as “Ye” rather than “Shiwen” when one name is used. But the article is excellent. Very informative. Keep up the good work.

  12. “Given the fact that Ye passed all of her drug tests, I believe that she’s perfectly innocent …”

    Babe in the woods. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with doping knows testing catches few dopers. In competition testing catches only the most idiotic, and there is not enough out of competition testing to make any sort of meaningful dent in the problem. This speaks as well to the commenter’s observation above about the history of Chinese doping.

    After some fairly outrageous performances in the 1990s cast suspicion on Chinese performances, China began to implement its own testing, prior to major championships, at which positive tests could bring shame onto the country. A number of athletes were withdrawn from competition as a result. Ma’s Army’s performances (world records in a number of women’s distance and middle distance events) were later exposed as doping-fuelled by a former Chinese sports official in the Chinese press. China itself banned at least eight athletes prior to these London games after its internal tests exposed them. It removed four top swimmers from the team prior to the 2000 games, and more than 40 top Chinese swimmers have tested positive over the past 20 years. World championship distance running medalist Sun Yingjie tested positive at a domestic marathon … and so on.

    That’s not to say it’s only Chinese who dope. The London women’s shot put champion (BLR) was just stripped of her gold for a positive dope test. Other Belarussians who tested positive were the gold and silver medalists in the hammer throw in Beijing (later reinstated on a technicality).

    In the long history of doping, very, very few dopers have tested positive. [Look at the athletics record book … Marita Koch, Jarmila Kratochvilova, FloJo, etc.] We know about most offenders either through confession (after religious conversion or simply from a desire to come to terms with their actions) or law enforcement action (L’affaire Festina, Operacion Puerto, etc., BALCO). Former WADA director Dick Pound estimates that only 10% of dopers are caught, and that may be low.

    Usain Bolt? We will probably never know. [Though we do know about Yohan Blake, who several years ago tested positive for a stimulant and was banned by the Jamaican federation.] In his favour, as above, his consistency has been high. In his favour, he (like the American Michael Johnson) has a very distinctive biomechanical process, which may allow him to transcend “normal” performance.

    Good post, which lays out simply the flags that (should) arouse our suspicions. Sadly, most people don’t care about doping (though it destroys the dreams of aspiring young athletes and tempts them down the same path), and pathetically, most people think doping is something “they” do, but not “us”.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I recognize that the drug testing system is far from perfect, but I’d rather err on the side of caution and make it clear that I am not personally accusing Ye of foul play than allow it to seem like I am publicly accusing an athlete of illegal activity (especially since I have absolutely no way of knowing the truth, and I would rather not toe the line of libel if I can help it).

  13. Oh come on. Ye Shiwen was not just record breaking. Over her last 50m she was quicker than the American Ryan Lochte, who won the men’s 400m individual medley in the second-fastest time in history.

    Usain Bolt’s performances are great. But for a 16 yearl old girl to swim a leg of the 400IM faster than Lochte who swam one of th fastest times ever? These are not comparable levels of disbelief here.

    • Ye swam a 53.66 100 meter freestyle two years ago when she was 14 years old. The 6th place finisher in the women’s 100 meter Olympic freestyle finals swam the same time. No woman 400 IM swimmer in the Olympics has that kind of freestyle speed.

      If she doesn’t swim all out on the breast stroke leg (which it looked like to me), why shouldn’t she be able swim a fast 100 meter time? The men generally swim as hard as they can in the 300 meters and hang on as best they can for the final 100. It looked to me that she was holding back in the first 250 meters.

      As for her large improvement, Stephanie Rice, the previous record holder, also improved dramatically at about the same age as Ye. Rice swam 4:29 in the Beijing Olympics. The year before, her best time was 4:41. That’s a bigger jump in a year than Ye. So Ye’s improvement is not unique.

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