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