Jose Canseco always made his teammates better power hitters. Can statistics be used to find juicers?

The search for better economic policy.
July 30 2010 2:25 PM

The Canseco Effect

Wherever he went, Jose Canseco made his teammates better power hitters. Can statistics be used to find juicers?

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Can Gould and Kaplan's approach be applied to other sports? There are striking parallels between the Canseco saga and the ongoing doping scandal in competitive cycling. This year's Tour de France began under yet another cloud of controversy with the publication of former champion Floyd Landis' detailed description of alleged doping with seven-time tour winner Lance Armstrong. According to Landis, Armstrong lorded over a complex and multi-faceted operation that included bike sales (to fund the doping program) and clandestine roadside blood transfusions for him and the rest of his U.S. Postal Service team. Not surprisingly, Landis' interview, published by the Wall Street Journal, was followed by sharp denials from Armstrong and "no comments" from others implicated in the story.

Like Canseco, Landis himself initially denied the doping charges that led to his fall from grace, even writing a book-length defense titled Positively False. Many are using this flip-flopping to question his credibility—Armstrong points to Landis' repeated lying under oath as evidence that he can't be trusted.

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The same approach employed by Gould and Kaplan could conceivably be applied to implicate—or exonerate—Armstrong. Cycling, like baseball, is a combination of individual and team effort. Each person rides his own bike, and at least on some days—when riders are competing in individual time trials, for instance—you could look for an Armstrong effect. If Armstrong's presence on the team improved the performance of his teammates, it wouldn't provide a smoking gun—just as Canseco's impact may have come in the form of batting wisdom, not drugs, Armstrong might have motivated his teammates to train harder and better. But smart researchers like Gould and Kaplan will surely find creative ways—as they have in uncovering Canseco's influence—to begin to cut through the lies that have come to characterize the debate on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, cycling, and other sports.

How do these findings on what Gould and Kaplan term "ethical spillovers" leave us feeling about players who dope? While it's no excuse, it does matter if everyone else is doing it. One of the basic tenets of social psychology is the fundamental attribution error—we tend to attribute too much blame to the individual and not enough to his circumstances. It explains why we see baseball players and cyclists as dirty rotten cheaters and rail against unethical Boston firemen rather than asking whether we'd do the same in their circumstances. It also explains why it's so hard to reform a culture of cheating and corruption when everyone is doing it.

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Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.

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