Ryan Braun finally admitted to using banned performance enhancing drugs yesterday, prompting millions of sports fans worldwide to react. While there is ongoing debate about what drugs, if any, should be banned from professional sports, it’s interesting to watch how fans respond to sports cheaters. In Braun’s case, his ongoing adamant denial to the point of incriminating others in an attempt to save himself has turned off legions of people (similar to Lance Armstrong). While Braun and Armstrong are hated by many today, we have seen other athletes get free passes (Andy Pettitte has successfully rebounded with fans again). Why do some guys get second chances, while others are so despised?
Since it is no longer shocking to hear of athletes cheating these days, the more curious question might be the mediating variables that impact how fans, sports journalists, and even players respond to cheaters.
Three big psychological factors that appear to play into how cheaters are perceived include:
- Quickness to admit/remorse. Athletes quick to “own up” and show genuine remorse seem to have the best chance for eventually being welcomed back. Conversely, athletes who repeatedly lie, use smokescreens, and appear callous, defensive, or even attacking, almost always pay a dear price for their reactions.
- Likeability. Psychologists know that the variable likeability often masks other faulty traits and behaviors, sometimes causing us cognitive dissonance. In other words, fun, cool, interesting athletes usually get more free passes when it comes to public perception than those who are aloof, mean-spirited, or elusive.
- Similarity. Psychologists also know that people who are similar to us often receive a different and better response when compared to people who are different. For example, if the cheating athlete matches up closely to you on various demographic (i.e. race), gender, and other variables like work ethic and even birth origin, you might be more likely to have sympathy for the cheater and give him or her another chance.
To the extent in which cheating athletes are received by fans (positively or negatively) is a fantastic study in sport psychology and shows that not all cheaters are viewed the same.