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Deterrence Takes Center Stage

By Dr. Larry Bowers, USADA Chief Science Officer

The United States Anti-Doping Agency’s 14th annual Symposium on Anti-Doping Science took place from Oct. 3-5 at the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va. Located just 35 miles from our nation’s capital, the symposium was comprised of a global network of anti-doping experts, including scientists from both WADA accredited laboratories and National Anti-Doping Organizations, as well as academic experts representing institutions throughout the United States and United Kingdom. Tasked with exploring the critical challenges currently facing the anti-doping community as well industry wide best practices, this year’s symposium was centered on the role of deterrence and how it can be used to cultivate a more effective global anti-doping effort.

An impressive collection of academic minds from the University of Maryland, Rutgers University, and the University of Albany each contributed thoughtful presentations on how deterrence theory can help to better protect both the integrity of competition and the rights of clean athletes everywhere.

While each presenter articulated their own nuanced approach, there was unanimous agreement that central to deterrence theory is the idea of rational choice – a belief that athletes (and their support team) make rational decisions based on their own best interests. Conformance to the rules among some athletes is the result of their acceptance that doping and cheating are inherently wrong. Athletes (and their support personnel) who are considering doping are assumed to make rational choices considering rewards and risks. Hence, an individual’s perceptions are more important than reality in their decision-making process. The perceptual deterrence model uses the perceptions of certainty, severity, and celerity to influence any decision to break the rules. It was these concepts that took center stage at the USADA’s 14th annual science symposium.

Featuring presentations from the University of Maryland’s Ray Paternoster and Thomas Loughran, as well as Rutgers’ Robert Apel and Albany’s Greg Pogarsky, most of the day was devoted to the application of social science research and achieving a better understanding of the ways in which it pertains to perceptual deterrence. Within this context, here is a brief look at some of the main ideas covered.

Professor Paternoster stated that deterrence is maximized by the certain and swift detection, as well as sanctioning of doping. Athletes associate a larger number of tests with a greater certainty of being caught. The perceived threat of detection occurs only after a sufficient number of tests occur (e.g., tipping point). Perceptions of certainty can also be enhanced through ambiguity regarding the specifics of the collection and testing process. Since the rewards of doping are immediate and the detection and sanctioning are delayed, the anti-doping system has to address the decreasing impact of delayed sanctions (called time discounting). One way to bring potential sanctions into the present is through messages that evokes anticipated regret. Further, he also stated that an effective deterrence program must also have substantive and procedural justice. Paternoster noted that organizations gain legitimacy when their processes are substantively and procedurally fair.  Procedural fairness has six fundamental components: representation/voice; consistency in treatment; impartiality; correctability; accuracy of decisions; and ethicality. Paternoster’s conclusion was that if authorities (in this case, ADOs) are perceived to be legitimate, then athlete compliance with anti-doping rules can result from a sense of obligation instead of coercion. Athletes will also feel confident that cooperation with authorities will result in mutually beneficial outcomes.

Professor Apel discussed the state of research literature in deterrence including threat communication, perception calibration, perceptual deterrence, and perceptual updating through experiences with the system. He also considered the use of PEDs from the perspective of rewards, risks, preferences, and opportunity. With respect to perceptual deterrence, while much is known about the impact of risks, it may very well be that the impact of rewards are equally – or perhaps even more – important. Within this context, early intervention also appears to be a productive strategy.

Professor Laughran then took to the lectern and built on the importance of perceptions in making decisions about risks and rewards. Risk perception is relatively well studied, and requires effective threat communication. However, relatively little is known about the formation of reward perceptions, — although both material and psychological components are involved.  Specifically intrinsic motivation would seem to be a key factor which needs to be better understood with respect to rule noncompliance. Dr. Pogarsky discussed deterrence of atypical populations. He pointed out that doping rule non-compliance appears to be instrumental, communal, and require innovation and expertise.  Some attributes that contribute to “success” (e.g., boldness, industriousness, confidence, ruthlessness, focus) when taken to extreme may reflect a sociopathic nature, which is associated with moral disengagement and an over-responsiveness to rewards as opposed to risk. Individuals in this category will not respond to deterrence strategies in the expected ways and, once caught, will have to be expelled from sport.

Investigations are an important tool that ADOs are using more often to catch athletes suspected of anti-doping rule violations. USADA’s legal counsel, Bill Bock, spoke about needing investigations to complement the work of scientific testing. According to Bock, investigations are sometimes the only way to sanction the worst offenders, the coaches, doctors, drug dealers, and entourage, who perpetuate the drug culture in sport. One significant limitation is the time required to carry out an investigation – and delays in the arbitration process – which contributes to time discounting and the lessening of deterrence.

While this year’s theme was not entirely focused on physical or biological science, this was a chance to expose scientists to the world of social science and its role in anti-doping and deterrence. Symposium attendees left with a better idea of how other pieces of the puzzle fit with and complement their scientific testing efforts in order to best support clean athletes.

Check out Part I and  Part III of the 2015 Science Symposium Recap. 

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