“Winning or Cheating”?

Winning or Cheating


In this essay, I explore the relationship people have with their success in relation to the success of others, how emotions come into play, and a sense of right and wrong. We discover that justice is in the eye of the beholder, and that we aren’t as objective as we think we are. Let’s begin with a widely reviled example of winning framed as cheating.


Outside of the bodybuilding industry, there is a stigma about (illicit) steroid use. Inside of the bodybuilding industry, there is an even greater stigma, and simultaneously, a wide acceptance. Let’s take an example. Assuming that the reader is not already part of the professional bodybuilding community, imagine that you were spending time with your normal, not overly overweight, but not overly toned, friends. You notice one friend (let’s call him Arnold), has changed their appearance. You compliment him on the lost weight, and the slightly bulging muscles. He reveals that he has been using steroids. How do you react? Most people are surprised, and slightly repulsed. Some people even feel a sense of betrayal or injustice at learning this fact, whereas others don’t. What makes that difference? In a recent study, researchers found that those people who also exercised or also went to the gym, but who did not use steroids, were in the former (outraged) group. My interpretation of this finding is that we feel cheated: we worked hard, and this person has taken a shortcut, and has beaten us! It’s not that they’re winning, it’s that they’re cheating. However, if we aren’t in the “race” ourselves, we simply view them as someone who has taken a taboo risk, and has reaped the rewards. That is, we view them as a “winner”, not a “cheater”.

Turning the tables

Now let’s consider an alternative scenario. Suppose I asked you to meet me at a cafe a few city blocks away, at an indeterminate time later in the day. When I arrive, puffed and out of breath from walking, you sit calmly in the cafe, already sipping your latte, having used a car to drive there. I indignantly protest, that you cheated, that you took a shortcut, that you skipped the hard walk, and that you should have walked just as I had done. What would you think of that reaction? Bizarre, unfounded, and totally uncalled for? Yes, most likely. It seems totally reasonable that you would choose to take the faster, easier, less effortful option of driving, instead of walking. No normal rational person would complain about that choice. But how does this scenario differ from the earlier scenario? How is one person’s use of a lever (be it the car, or be it the steroids) to avoid effort, completely acceptable by the average person, whereas the other is an outrageous form of cheating? The answer is that the average person is conflicted, and probably behaving irrationally.

Surprise in the means

The surprised and outraged complainer is in fact not dissatisfied with the results of the other party, but their means of achieving it. To see this, observe that our friend Arnold instead quips “Only joking! I spent many hours at the gym every day since we last saw each other, and followed a grueling diet of steamed chicken, eggs and protein shakes.” Suddenly, your anger dissipates. You now feel that they deserve the muscles they’ve gained. This shows that you’re not angry about the results, but only the means to achieve the results. You’re not at all angry when the friend drives their car, as it’s a possibility that is not novel, it’s almost expected. So, the outrage and accusations of cheating only come to the surface when the means are a surprise to us. 

Revealing surprises

Let’s detail a number of other industries where the results are commonly known and accepted, but the means to achieve said results are known only to insiders, and are generally surprising to outsiders. The music industry is now well known for its use of voice modifying software, such as Autotune, to correct the pitch of imperfect singers. This was the case for some years, but did not reach the public consciousness, and remained an accidentally obscured fact, rather than a well-kept secret. As such, when it became public knowledge and was openly admitted that many popular recording artists in fact used Autotune, fans were outraged, felt duped, cheated, and journalists dove into interviewing those few artists who had refused to use Autotune, who promptly climbed onto their high horse and begrudged the riches of the beautiful but otherwise average singers.

Similarly, in the internet industry, most people believe that Google intelligently weaves it’s magic to give you exactly what you are looking for, when they type in a particular query or phrase. However this takes place under the hood is the domain of Google geniuses alone, we thought. However, the truth is that the top ranking websites are in fact able to bid for their position on the front page of Google, by buying backlinks, and by carefully crafting their website content to match the text of the most commonly searched phrases.

Concluding remarks

In short, there are many aspects of life where the means to achieve results are not known to you, or are not clear to you. In these cases, you should be especially aware of your own sense of outrage and anger, being careful to not mistake someone who is winning, for someone who is cheating. If they get the results, and they’re not hurting anyone, then remember, it’s the same as driving a car to get somewhere, instead of walking. Let winners win, and reserve the cry of “cheater!” to those deceptive individuals who deceive others, or who use a car in a competitive professional foot race.