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Comfort in big numbers: Does over-estimation of doping prevalence in others indicate self-involvement?

Andrea Petróczi12*, Jason Mazanov3, Tamás Nepusz14, Susan H Backhouse5 and Declan P Naughton1

Author Affiliations

1 Kingston University, Faculty of Science, School of Life Sciences, Penrhyn Road, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, KT1 2EE, UK

2 The University of Sheffield, Department of Psychology, Western Bank, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK

3 School of Business, UNSW@ADFA, Australia

4 Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Department of Measurement and Information Systems, Hungary

5 Carnegie Faculty of Sport and Education, Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds, UK

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Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology 2008, 3:19  doi:10.1186/1745-6673-3-19

Published: 5 September 2008



The 'False Consensus Effect' (FCE), by which people perceive their own actions as relatively common behaviour, might be exploited to gauge whether a person engages in controversial behaviour, such as performance enhancing drug (PED) use.


It is assumed that people's own behaviour, owing to the FCE, affects their estimation of the prevalence of that behaviour. It is further hypothesised that a person's estimate of PED population use is a reliable indicator of the doping behaviour of that person, in lieu of self-reports.

Testing the hypothesis

Over- or underestimation is calculated from investigating known groups (i.e. users vs. non-users), using a short questionnaire, and a known prevalence rate from official reports or sample evidence. It is proposed that sample evidence from self-reported behaviour should be verified using objective biochemical analyses.

In order to find proofs of concept for the existence of false consensus, a pilot study was conducted. Data were collected among competitive UK student-athletes (n = 124) using a web-based anonymous questionnaire. User (n = 9) vs. non-user (n = 76) groups were established using self-reported information on doping use and intention to use PEDs in hypothetical situations. Observed differences in the mean estimation of doping made by the user group exceeded the estimation made by the non-user group (35.11% vs. 15.34% for general doping and 34.25% vs. 26.30% in hypothetical situations, respectively), thus providing preliminary evidence in support of the FCE concept in relation to doping.

Implications of the hypothesis

The presence of the FCE in estimating doping prevalence or behaviour in others suggests that the FCE based approach may be an avenue for developing an indirect self-report mechanism for PED use behaviour. The method may be successfully adapted to the estimation of prevalence of behaviours where direct self-reports are assumed to be distorted by socially desirable responding. Thus this method can enhance available information on socially undesirable, health compromising behaviour (i.e. PED use) for policy makers and healthcare professionals. The importance of the method lies in its usefulness in epidemiological studies, not in individual assessments.