Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lance Armstrong's Story a Case Study in Human Psychology

It is quite fascinating isn't it, that when we step away for a second from the intricacies of this epic doping saga connected to Lance Armstrong, you find larger underlying questions about behavioral psychology - the way we humans operate, why we behave in certain ways and why we choose to believe or not believe in things we come across especially when some form of philanthropy is involved. 

I was driven to this post because I was struck by the curious 30% increase in funds going to the Lance Armstrong foundation right after the news came out that USADA wiped his Tour de France wins from the books.

Bear with me for a few minutes here and I hope this will lead to some interesting discussion of a more psychological nature.

Ethical People Can Do Unethical Things

There is a fundamental assumption that unethical people do unethical things but that's not always true. Ethical people can do unethical things because they repeatedly fool themselves about the real implications of their transgressions. Slipping into this unethical state is driven by many many factors. In the early races of the 90's, Lance and his team probably knew there was no way to stay in competition and produce the numbers their sponsors were looking for other than to partake in doping. So they doped too.

The real transition came the instant when Lance decided to become the driver of the doping rather than just a participating rider. He allegedly became the self-appointed leader of the Omerta. What led to this behavior? You could say a self confidence he gained from winning races, the fact that he was an American in a long time to hold the Yellow Jersey, maybe the friends he made in the peloton who were also doping that he had to stay friends with. A lot of theories are out there. Forgive me for speculating.

Whats most interesting is the cognitive blind spot people as his fans have towards unethical behavior given that the same person has done a lot of good, both for the sport and for those suffering from cancer. For fans, LA is a symbol and they feel empathy so they want to help his cause out. I can't find any other way to explain why financial contributions to the LAF cancer fund have suddenly jumped 30% in the last few days.

It begs the question : are people actually worried about cancer patients suffering. Or are they worried about Lance Armstrong's financial troubles that come ahead? Are people running out, suddenly contributing to make a statement that they support their hero or are they really concerned where their money is going to and what for? Are the contributions a show of arrogance from his fans that his legitimacy is still valid? You'll never know. But it brings out a great opportunity to talk about psychology. 

Relational Dynamics of Philanthropy

It is quite popular now for a decently successful sports star to fall into the web of philanthropy. You win something big, make lots of money and then the next day, you come out in a press conference or through a PR ad showing you're contributing to rid the human race from their most excruciating plight. 

There's a reason why this works in today's world. When you're a sports star and you start something philanthropic that people can instantly relate with, either because you know what they want or you have gone through similar things as they have, you've a winning idea. You've now latched on to their minds and hearts very tightly. 

Lance Armstrong was made into the quintessential American hero that appealed to our tastes - a firm, strong minded and brash Texan taking on the storm of cancer, emerging from it victorious and then in a gutsy move, snatching seven Tour de France wins. A feat no one has ever accomplished. That's the celebrated version. The nuances of that journey that his closest allies, enemies and independent journalists knew about has little place in these accounts.

Between each year of his Tour de France victories, he was doing things at home that continued making him a larger than life figure. He grew in popularity. The few who accused him of doping was not a big concern but rather an inconvenient nuisance that he had to brush off every once in a while. The stories of a few smaller riders from the peloton who couldn't stand to make a successful living because of his harassment was swept under the rug because they were insignificant, they didn't "make" the news - hence discarded.

People around the world flocked to hear from him. They bought his books, attended his talk shows, bought the Livestrong bands. Through him, it gave everyone a deep sense of "doing good" too and a sense of identity. I suppose nothing is worse than being a mere ectoplasm in society and living your life being of no value to anyone else.

More so, for the many in the hospital beds who identified with him, it had everything to do with the disease that he called arms against. Cancer has been an all consuming presence in our lives. Some books out there say the first documented cases of cancer go back all the way to 1000 BC. Its a deadly disease that has managed to co inhabit with the human race. In spite of all human efforts to get rid of this disease, the interesting bit is that latest data show cancer deaths have budged little from the 1950's. 

If Lance had won just once or twice, the average Joe wouldn't shy away from calling it a random act of nature. There's nothing spectacular in "a" win. But seven times ? That packs a punch. Its not a cheesy story by any standard. There's nothing to say against that. Its powerful. People found credibility in that. Businessmen found a whole lot of marketability in that. They wanted Lance because you're a loser if you can't have the cash cow on your side.

Popular media has always concentrated on the benefactor of philanthropy. The people who receive aid, and care are documented proclaiming how they would done much worse weren't it for the the great Philanthropist's deeds. Some couldn't care less what a Texan was doing with his bicycle in a wind tunnel to perfect himself for a race in France. They were receiving indirect monetary benefits, without going through the embarrassment of begging for help because they were dying. 

Now if you have lots of money and a great PR team, you can make anything out of anything these days. Most importantly, if you can make a claim a patent on the idea of a "war against cancer", which I think is quite fascinating because "war against cancer" began to go mainstream when the "war against terror" was the buzzword in political circles. Hundreds of other non-profit cancer funds operate in this country, providing care to patients and support of research but that's hardly important to the media. Media wants glitz, glitter, flair, finesse, celebrity status. They didn't fight the "war against cancer" that Lance did.

On the other side of this dynamic is the Philanthropist. The theory is fascinating that the the Foundation must have given him just immense power over ordinary human beings. A feeling of invincibility. A confidence that you don't get just winning a bicycle race. Never mind all the shady stuff he was doing with his teammates on U.S Postal team. The masses were on his side and they can be his pawns in a public court. The anti-cancer movement was card he could play anytime, any day, anyway he wants. So far, almost every press conference Lance has initiated in response to doping allegations has had a non-trivial coverage given to cancer. 

Here's what I think. More than a few times, deep somewhere, Lance must have felt guilty of the things he had done to himself and his teammates. But when there are signs that a lot of people are happier with him back home with his anti-cancer propaganda, that good deed must have become greater than the bad deed in his own mind. Let the sleeping dogs lie, why worry about what you've done in the past when you're doing a whole lot of good now? Perhaps this served to clear his conscience so he could rest his inner demons and go to sleep in peace every night. We may never know...

Humans as Reductionists

It is fascinating that the idea of cancer and cycling has become so intertwined in Lance Armstrong's world that there appears to be no room for an alternative. How is this possible? Today, there is a such a strong mass following for Lance that going against the grain to challenge him on his legitimacy comes looking merely as a criticism against his anti-cancer evangelism.  

You reduce one idea -  the question of taking drugs, to another - anti-cancer movement. Since you now have more options to berate someone for going against the anti-cancer movement, instead of debating him on the drugs issue, then you've just found a channel, a strategy to defeat the other person's argument as a whole using the cancer card. This reduction can be compared to what they call "Straw man" information fallacy. Its a fallacious way to argue but its alarming that a lot of people don't think about this. Its too simplistic and irrational.

When Does A Good Deed Become Greater Than a Bad Deed?

For sake of discussion, say that in the future, if there comes out of this ugly world a truly great hypothetical philanthropist, an individual who lives purely for the masses, who supports fighting some of the biggest problems of our times but later was found to operate the biggest global scamming operation, when do you decide that the good committed is lesser than the bad committed?

It is quite interesting to me that with the right amount of external input to the human being, their minds can be so programmed that they do not understand when to separate one independent variable, in this case being the idea someone did wrong in another time and place, from another independent variable, that someone did good in a second time and place.

I suspect there will be remain a stark division in the sporting world on Lance Armstrong's rise to success. There will be the believers, there will be the heretics. Lance's anti-cancer movement and his statistically spectacular athletic talents will continue to seduce. Others will talk about data and court proceedings and witness testimonies and continue to hate him for who he was. Another group stand somewhere in the middle of this messy issue.

Perhaps this whole doping question will be deemed so significant that future presidential candidates would be asked what they believe in - whether Lance Armstrong was a liar and cheat, or won his competitions fairly. If you can extract a person's operation of thinking based on tough questions such as these, perhaps we'll be to tell something deep and subtle about them as a human being that would be hard to gain otherwise.

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