Cheating a Little vs. Cheating a Lot

Nobody was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame today, and Rob Neyer has an interesting post exploring why some writers seem to consider steroid cheating in baseball as being worse than other forms of cheating. I want to address his article, because at one point he says something that is flat out wrong:

Why does the impact matter? I’m trying to imagine a player’s thoughts here … “Gosh, those amphetamines seemed to help a little, so even though it’s cheating I think they’re okay to use. But golly, these steroids everybody’s talking about … I’d better not mess with those, because they seem to help a LOT.”

That just defies everything we know about human nature and, specifically, the nature of world-class athletes. If there’s a small advantage to be taken, big-time athletes will take it. If there’s a larger advantage to be taken, they’ll take that.

Neyer is wrong about that defying what we know about human nature. Just the opposite, it actually conforms to it perfectly. Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke, has made a science out of studying cheating, and he has found that nearly everyone does make a distinction between cheating a little versus cheating a lot. Watch this animated video of an Areily speech, and keep the steroid issue in mind as you listen to it:

Most people cheat, as Ariely says, “just a little bit”. Only a very very few cheat a lot. You see it every day: if you’re on the freeway, and the speed limit is 55mph, do you stay under 55mph? No, most people drive about 58-63mph–cheating just a little bit. A few will drive 70, 80, 90mph — but they’re a small minority.

If you cheat just a little bit, it’s easy to rationalize it, and still feel good about yourself. It is much harder to rationalize cheating a lot: in that case, you have crossed over into Ariely’s “What the Hell” effect.

I doubt that athlete’s psychology is very different from other humans in this manner. People don’t seem to mind people who cheat just a little bit — scuffing a baseball here, or stealing a sign there, or drinking some extra caffeine to stay alert. But there is a point where you flip over into the “What the Hell” effect — where you’re cheating so much that it has a noticeable effect, and you keep doing it, because what the hell, why not?

Where is the line in baseball between cheating a little and cheating a lot? I don’t know, and neither it seems, do the baseball writers. But this is not an black-and-white issue, where in order to be consistent, you either you have to let all cheaters in, or you have to kick all cheaters out, as I’ve seen some people (including, I think, Neyer) arguing. The science says there are levels of cheating wired into human nature. To Neyer’s credit, however much he may not want to draw a line between cheating a little and cheating a lot, he recognizes that writers are doing it, and he hypothesizes that they’re drawing the line at the statistical records being broken:

I continue to believe that a lot of the hand-wringing over steroids — which, by the way, I really wish hadn’t happened — is due to just two players: Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. I believe that if McGwire and Bonds hadn’t so utterly destroyed the home-run records, leaving first Roger Maris and then Hank Aaron in the dust, we might not be having this discussion at all.

On this point, I think Neyer is right. Many people are outraged by steroids because breaking those cherished records makes it clear that Bonds and McGwire were cheating more than “just a little”. And because that line that is built into human psychology, people react emotionally to want to punish that behavior. The fact that baseball writers are taking some time to figure out what and where that line is, to me seems quite a reasonable thing to do.