How Dopers Talk About Doping (Techniques of Deceptive Communication)
I don't enjoy writing about doping. The fact that it is one of the dominant narratives in track and running is depressing. On top of that, the science of doping and drug testing is highly technical and beyond my expertise. It gets complicated and I rarely feel qualified to make a strong claim about disputed cases like Shelby Houlihan's (though I have a lot of suspicions and opinions like everyone else).
I do like when current events gives me an opportunity to learn something new or explore a nuance that others might overlook.
My true interest is psychology, persuasion, and applying mental frameworks and ideas in ways that make us more productive. In terms of doping, I find the incentives and decision-making that goes into it to be endlessly fascinating.
My recent article Doping and the Trap of Marginal Thinking looks at the decision-making process around how doping starts. In sum, by prioritizing a short-term problem--recovery, qualification, bonuses--otherwise good people make decisions that set them down the path of breaking the rules (or if not explicitly the rules, the spirit of the sport).
This same pattern can explain more than just doping. It explains insider trading, infidelity, cheating in school, and numerous other destructive behaviors that often start very small. But that's how it starts. How do dopers think while they are doping (and hiding it from the world)?
How Dopers Talk About Doping
The best way to understand how people think is to watch how they act. The next best is to listen to how they talk. Both can be misleading, but if you learn to look for the right clues, you can learn a lot. Honest people often speak directly and tell you what they think. Liars tend to have tells.
I recently came across a LetsRun forum that highlights research done by a German sports sociologist named Marcel Reinold on the deceptive techniques dopers use when they speak about doping. This university release summarizes the research.
In short, Reinold read six books by cyclists written prior to their doping convictions and analyzed how they spoke about doping when no-one knew they themselves were guilty.
If given the chance, most dopers choose not to speak about doping at all. But in cycling, athletes were under a lot of pressure to address the topic, and so they had to adopt strategies to appear clean even when they were not. Reinold identified six techniques dopers use to hide the fact that they are guilty.
In the wake of Shelby Houlihan's four-year ban, conversations about doping with pro athletes need to become more common. We can look for these same techniques as a potential warning sign.
But not just that, I believe these same communication techniques are used whenever someone is systematically breaking rules...because when we try to hide our behavior we always strive to do it in the least conflicted way possible.
Here are the six techniques Reinold identified:
1. Moralization without personal criticism
Dopers talk about the moral problem of doping without identifying or calling out individuals specifically. This enables them to discuss how "doping is a problem" while at the same time not calling out someone who may be doing the same things they are. The less doping is a problem of individuals making choices, the less they have to deal with the morality of their choices.
2. Exaggerating the intensity of anti-doping policies
By emphasizing how thoroughly they are tested and how difficult it would be to dope without getting caught, they make the testing regime seem better than it is. This helps to convince the average fan that opportunities and incentives to dope are minimal, or that they are tested far more than they are, both of which are untrue.
Athletes paint themselves as victims having to live through unnecessarily extreme scrutiny. Whereabouts requirements, monitoring their diet and supplements, and the burden of being excessively tested are a heavy price they are paying "because of the bad actors" in the sport.
4. Playing down the extent of the doping problem
Many pro athletes claim to have "never even heard of doping happening" or "never even had a conversation about it". The more convincingly dopers can make people believe that doping is the furthest thing from their minds, the more they themselves can emphasize that they are clean.
5. Omitting narrative details
When they do talk about doping or the testing process, they will leave out specific details and tell only part of the story. This allows them to emphasize the parts that make them look good while de-emphasizing anything that may arouse suspicion. The parts they say may be true, but the message itself is misleading.
6. Pretending a lack of doping-relevant knowledge
An athlete who can convincingly express complete ignorance to the drugs being used in the sport will of course appear to be innocent. In fact, their ignorance may even be a sign of just how virtuous they are. But for athletes and coaches at the top of the sport, this can also be a sign they are hiding their true, intimate knowledge of exactly how it works. When you have a responsibility to know something but claim you don't, you are either irresponsible or hiding something.
Let's be clear: an athlete or coach who speaks about doping in these ways is not therefore guilty of doping. These are the common techniques used by dopers and they may be a sign that the person speaking is not being 100% genuine.
They may also just be the truth about how the clean athlete feels. Knowing these doesn't give us a special ability to identify guilt. It just gives a tool for sniffing out suspicious behavior.
What I particularly like about these six techniques is that they seem applicable to other systemic problems as well. Members in organized crime would no doubt speak about their activities in these ways. As would scammers or insider traders, probably even cheating spouses.
When you are part of a problem but need to hide your involvement, you need to do so in ways that allow you to not explicitly identify yourself in a hypocritical way. Knowing the techniques can help us to spot potential problems earlier.