Jason Powers

Jason Powers M.D.

Beyond Abstinence

Bad Sports: 'Deflategate' and the Psychology of Cheating

Does breaking the rules feel good?

Posted Jan 27, 2015

Tom Brady broke out in a wide grin last week when asked if he had anything to do with "Deflategate,” the latest cheating scandal involving the New England Patriots as they prepare for yet another appearance in the Super Bowl.

Coach Bill Belichick and his star quarterback have been unwavering in their denial that they played any role in the events that allowed Brady to use underinflated footballs to pick apart the Indianapolis Colts in New England’s 45-7 conference championship victory. 

“Gosh,” they seemed to say, Belichick with his trademark terseness and Brady with his “Opie of Mayberry” sincerity. “I don’t know who would have done such a thing.”

But Brady seemingly couldn’t stop smiling. What was that all about?

Was he using his well-crafted boyish charm to convey naivete to the cynical media? Was he actually naïve? Was it possible that Brady, who has thrown thousands of passes in his Hall-of-Fame football career, really was unaware that air had been removed from each ball after they were certified for use by NFL officials, making them easier for him to throw and for his receivers to catch?

Or was Brady slyly sending a message? A “wink, wink, nod, nod.” Was the grin his way of endorsing the rakish sports adage, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

Breaking the Rules Feels Good

If the latter explanation is true, Brady would not be alone in the view that trying to gain a competitive advantage, even while violating league – or societal – guidelines, is not such a bad thing. In fact, research has found that running afoul of the rules actually feels pretty good.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “The Cheater's High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior,” refutes the fundamental assumption that cheaters feel guilty after engaging in unethical behavior. Across six experiments, researchers broke new ground with their finding that the idea of “getting away with something” triggers a positive affect. Feelings of regret came into play only when the perpetrator felt he or she had hurt a specific, identifiable victim. (A 2007 study found that of 105 perpetrators of violent crimes, 46 percent reported that they were haunted by distressing memories, and 6 percent showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.)  

However, many acts of dishonesty—such as tax evasion, insurance fraud, workplace theft and cheating in school—have less obvious victims and winning in these areas led to a feeling of self-satisfaction, the researchers discovered.

For Brady, who did call the footballs "perfect," there is, perhaps, the comfort of knowing that the doctored footballs were unlikely to have made much difference. The Patriots won by more than five touchdowns. But what happened between the time NFL officials blessed the batch of footballs and the underinflated balls showing up on the sideline at game time? Brady says he has no idea.

But ex-Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward told the “Today Show” that the only people who would have known about Deflategate were "Tom Brady and the ball boy.”

"It's cheating," Ward said. "Regardless of how you may want to spin it."

For the record, Brady says he's not a cheater.

Belichick, too, insists that he did not cheat, though the coach has been accused, and even busted, before. The “Spygate” controversy of 2007, in which the Patriots were caught taping New York Jets’ coaching signals during a game in violation of league rules, resulted in a lost first-round draft pick and a $250,000 fine for the team and a $500,000 fine for Belichick, the largest ever levied against an NFL head coach. It is notable that Belichick denied the “Spygate” charges until just last week, when he copped to the videotaping, but added that it was the same thing “a lot of other teams [were] doing.”

While there may be some question about whether cheating hurts the cheater, there can be no doubt how the public perceives those who violate the rules for their own gain, particularly in the world of sports. The “Black Sox,” who threw the 1919 World Series after receiving payoffs from gamblers, were banned for life from baseball and shunned by society. Steroid use created a crisis in many sports, including baseball, football, and track and field. This is because the existence of a fair playing field is a fundamental assumption in sports and, thus, people honor those who play fair and reject those who do not.

Fairness is one of the virtues most valued in our culture; it’s the second most prevalent character strength, behind only kindness. (Park, Peterson, Seligman, 2006).

Brain Is Wired for Fairness

One of the pillars of morality is fairness. We don’t like feeling that we’ve been duped. Even capuchin monkeys “get” unfairness. In a famous experiment, one monkey is perfectly happy when given a cucumber for performing a task. But after that, when another monkey is given a grape, a more desired treat, for completing the same task, the monkey with the cucumber hurls it at the researcher.

To study the positive emotional impact of fairness, researcher Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues at UCLA used neuroimaging to look at the brain’s responses to fair and unfair offers and found that getting a fair deal lights up the brain’s reward circuitry just like sugar and cocaine.

For Aristotle, happiness was impossible without justice. In his book Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that “living well and doing well are the same as being happy.”  

So what of the cheaters?  If Belichick or Brady did order or orchestrate or even know about the illegal deflation of footballs before the game, and they don’t get caught, will it hurt them? And if they do get caught, what will be the consequences? The NFL has punished, but welcomed back, far worse violators than an alleged pack of football deflators.

No, “The Cheater’s High” study suggests that neither man, if ultimately found guilty, would experience much remorse. Researchers found that the “high” may be mitigated by the magnitude of the perceived consequences. While some may argue that the terms “consequences” and “NFL” don’t really belong in the same sentence, researchers added that it would be interesting to investigate the long-term affective consequences of unethical behavior. Over time and perhaps through self-reflection, cheaters may become more likely to regret their actions.

It is safe to say that the legacy of Belichick – or “Beli-Cheat,” as he became known in some East Coast tabloids – has suffered little, if at all, due to the scandals that have occurred on his watch.  He has won three Super Bowls, and counting, and will surely be enshrined one day with Brady in Canton, Ohio. The $500,000 “Spygate” fine may have left a dent in his wallet, but his reputation as a coach remains intact.

So cheaters never prosper? Who says?

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Right Step  and Promises Austin residential addiction treatment center in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, a scientifically validated approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives upon achieving sobriety.