Saturday, December 31, 2011

Performance Enhancing Surgery

In the sporting world - which I occasionally visit via a muted TV on at a bar - I'm told that steroid use is something of hot topic. Many people don't seem to take too kindly to athletes that use these performance enhancing drugs, as they are seen as being dangerous and giving athletes an unfair advantage. As I've written previously, when concerns for "fairness" start getting raised, you can bet there's more than just a hint of inconsistency lurking right around the corner.     

                                               It starts with banning steroids, then, before you know it, I won't be able to use my car in the Tour de France.

On the one hand, steroids certainly allow people to surpass the level of physical prowess they could achieve without them; I get that. How that makes them unfair isn't exactly obvious, though. Surely, other athletes are just as capable of using steroids, which would level the playing field. "But what about those athletes who don't want to use steroids?" I already hear you objecting. Well, what about those athletes who don't want to exercise? Exercise and exercise equipment also allows people to surpass the level of physical prowess they could achieve without them, but I don't see anyone lining up to ban gym use.

Maybe the gym and steroids differ in some important, unspecified way. Sure, people who work out more may have an advantage of those who eschew the gym, but those advantages are not due to the same underlying reason that come with steroid use. How about glasses or contacts? Now, to the best of my provincial knowledge of the sporting world, no one has proposed we ban athletes from correcting their vision. As contact lenses allow one to artificially improve their natural vision, that could be a huge leg up, especially for any sports that involve visual acuity (almost all of them). A similar tool that allowed an athlete to run a little faster, throw a little faster, or hit a little harder, to makeup for some pre-existing biological deficit in strength would probably be ruled out of consideration from the outset.
                                                                              "Just try and tackle me now, you juiced up clowns!"
I don't think this intuition is limited to sports; we may also see it in the animosity directed towards plastic surgery. Given that most people in the world haven't been born with my exceptional level of charm and attractiveness, it's understandable that many turn to plastic surgery. A few hundred examples of people's thoughts surrounding plastic surgery can be found here. If you're not bored enough to scroll through them, here's a quick rundown of the opinions you'll find: I would definitely get it; I would never get it; I would only get it if I was disfigured by some accident - doing it for mere vanity is wrong.

Given that the surgery generally makes people more attractive (Dayan, Clark, & Ho, 2004), the most interesting question is why wouldn't people want it, barring a fear of looking better? The opposition towards plastic surgery - and those who get it - probably has a lot to do with the sending and receiving of honest signals. In order for a signal to be honest, it needs to be correlated to some underlying biological trait. Artificially improving facial attractiveness by normalizing traits somewhat, or improving symmetry, may make the bearer more physically attractive, but those attractive traits would not be passed on to their future offspring. It's the biological equivalent of paying for a purchase using counterfeit bills.

                                                              "I couldn't afford plastic surgery, so these discount face tattoos will have to do"

Similar opposition can sometimes be seen even towards people who choose to wear makeup. Any attempts to artificially increase one's attractiveness have a habit of drawing its fair share of detractors. As for why there seems to be a difference between compensating for a natural disadvantage (in the case of contacts) in some cases, but not for surpassing natural limits (in the case of steroids or plastic surgery) in others, I can't definitively say. Improving vision is somehow more legitimate than improving one's appearance, strength, or speed (in ways that don't involve lifting weights and training, anyway).

Perhaps it has something to do with people viewing attractiveness, strength, and speed as traits capable of being improved through "natural" methods - there's no machine at the gym for improving your vision, no matter how many new years resolutions you've made to start seeing better. Of course, there's also no machine at the gym for improving for your facial symmetry, but facial symmetry plays a much greater role in determining your physical attractiveness relative to visual acuity, so surgery could be viewed as form of cheating, in the biological sense, to a far greater extent than contacts.      

References: Dayan, S., Clark, K., & Ho, A.A. (2004). Altering first impressions after plastic surgery. Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 28, 301-306. 


  1. Of course, the willingness to exploit the local ecology to maximum advantage (e.g. by using drugs) may itself be geneticallty transmitted. Therefore the singal of "cheating" might be honest--sorta

  2. Plastic surgery has become a hot topic in the last two years. There are many surgeons who claim to be the best.

    facial surgery guide