The Summer Olympics are set to start in Rio next week, and one of the many, many factors dampening some of the Games' luster this year is the doping scandal that's plagued the Russian team. There's no doubt that Russia has ample company when it comes to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but the country's track and field team was determined to have violated protocol so egregiously that it's been barred from competing. Meanwhile, other Russian teams and athletes will be allowed to compete on a case-by-case basis.
We talk about cheating in so many spheres of life—from sports to business to politics. But cheating in sports is different, and the reason why goes back to a fundamental principle of psychology that few of us pause to acknowledge—even while we're in the middle of decrying cheaters.
There's no logical reason why a basketball player in possession of the ball has to dribble it in order to move, or why that player can't resume dribbling after stopping. That is simply a constraint of the game. In every sport, players operate under certain constraints and try to test the limits of human performance within them.
Any cheating scandal in sports—whether it's runners doping, corked bats, or deflated footballs—is an attempt to soften the constraints of the game in order for one player or team to gain an upper hand. In sports, cheating is all about an unfair competitive advantage, and it's policed in order to maintain the integrity of the game so that everyone operates under the same set of rules.
Unfortunately, we often treat other areas of life as though they're games, too. Companies look for loopholes in the law to avoid paying taxes, pay their employees as little as possible, and minimize safety features in their products. Here's the thing, though: The laws and regulations in these cases are not primarily about satisfying a set of constraints that create a level playing field. Life is not a sport.
Most of the rules that government and society puts in place are designed for anything but arbitrary reasons. They're meant to protect the long-term interests of the society from the short-term desires of individuals and groups. And in pursuing that mission, our institutions are constantly fighting against the current of human psychology.
The human brain is wired to prefer things that are desirable in the short term, even if they have negative long-term consequences, over things that prove desirable only over the long term. That's why people overeat, smoke, and drink excessively despite the long-term dangers of those behaviors. People also overspend in the short term rather than saving for the future.
Many of the laws we put in place aim to correct these basic tendencies—to balance short-term self-interest with long-term benefit, rather than make the two mutually exclusive. The laws surrounding the use of funds in retirement accounts, for instance (ideally anyway), help protect funds that will be needed deep into the future from competing interests.
And the now defunct Glass-Steagall Act, whose specter is popping up on the campaign trail this year, was put in place after the market crash in 1929 to prevent banks from making investments that might generate short-term profits but create long-term risks to the stability of the banking system. As the behavior of the banks after the law's 1999 repeal made painfully clear, the desire to engage in short-term profit taking is hard to resist.
The problem with treating business like a sport is that there's a temptation to try to get away with as much as is legally possible—bending, stretching, and even breaking the rules when it's convenient. In sports, cheating just creates more cheating. The widespread doping in competitive cycling in recent years, for instance, resulted from the sense among top athletes that everyone else was doing it—so doping was necessary just to remain competitive. You can see a similar pattern of justifying logic at work in Rio this year.
In business, the consequences are often more immediate, more material, or at least easier to see. Widespread cheating chips away at the long-term health of companies, industries, and the employees who work within them. The predatory lenders of the early 2000s made huge profits but ultimately contributed to the near collapse of the global economy. Likewise, companies that evade environmental regulations may improve short-term sales, but they damage the economy that their long-term success relies on—and risk being caught and fined for their actions.
Among other sobering lessons, this year’s Olympic Games should be a reminder that life is not a game. Our aim is not to abide by the letter of the law and then feel smug about our compliance with the rules. Nor is it to accumulate as much wealth and profit at others' expense. That isn't success—even if it is a regrettable upshot of human psychology.
It's worth mentioning, too, that this is basically the same argument you'll hear in the political sphere right now, usually being declaimed in stridently moral terms. And there's nothing wrong with making that moral argument, either—just as long as we understand that the type of behavior leaders are arguing against has roots far deeper than current events.
It's no secret that there's a tremendous amount of anger in the American electorate right now, reflecting the impression that government (often in cahoots with business) is more focused on advancing the short-term interests of the few rather than the long-term interests of the many—whereas its whole mission is to prevent that behavior.
Sometimes we need to remind ourselves and each other that it's worth foregoing immediate wins in exchange for long-term gains. You can’t take any of your trophies with you when you cross life’s finish line.