Inside the Houston Astros Cheating Scandal: The Neuroscience of Bad Behavior

Inside the Houston Astros Cheating Scandal: The Neuroscience of Bad Behavior

Some people are calling it the biggest scandal to rock baseball since the steroid debacle. During the 2017 World Series, the Houston Astros engaged in a sign-stealing scheme that alerted their hitters to know what type of pitch to expect—fastball, breaking ball, change-up, and so on. The Astros went on to beat the Dodgers that year to win the World Series, but that title has been tainted since the cheating scandal came to light.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has slapped the team with punishments, including a $5 million fine and the loss of first- and second-round draft picks for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. But some say this doesn’t go far enough.

It all makes you wonder, why did they cheat?

The Neuroscience of Cheating and Lying

Based on reviewing over 160,000 brain SPECT scans related to behavior from tens of thousands of patients at Amen Clinics, neuropsychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD, says, “Brain dysfunction is the number-one cause of bad behavior.” He suggests it’s likely that a combination of anxiety, obsessiveness, and a lack of a moral code are underlying factors when people engage in bad behavior. “From a neuroscience perspective, lower frontal lobe function often leads to cheating and lying,” he says.

Here are some specific findings based on SPECT imaging that show how abnormal brain activity is linked to cheating and lying.

Problems in the Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the seat of impulse control, judgment, and empathy. When brain activity is low in this area, it leads to troublesome behavior, such as impulsively lying or cheating, poor decision-making, and a lack of empathy for anyone who may be hurt by your actions. It can also be associated with ADD/ADHD.

Abnormal Activity in the Anxiety and Fear Centers of the Brain

Anxiety often makes people fearful that they are not able to accomplish their goals on their own. Anxious types also have a tendency toward perfectionism, which makes you feel like you can only be valued (or loved) if you end up on top. When this type of anxiety takes hold, you may be more likely to lie or cheat to reach your lofty goals. Looking at the brain with SPECT imaging reveals that anxiety is often associated with abnormal activity in areas, such as the basal ganglia and the amygdala (the brain’s fear center).

When the Brain’s Gear Shifter Gets Stuck

Getting stuck on obsessive thoughts, such as the idea that winning at all costs is the only option, can cause you to get trapped in a course of action—even if deep down you know it isn’t the right thing to do. On SPECT, people with obsessive thinking patterns or compulsive behaviors often show unhealthy brain activity in an area called the anterior cingulate gyrus. Known as the brain’s gear shifter, it’s what helps you go from thought to thought. When it isn’t working right, you tend to get locked into looping thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

Group Dynamics Activate the Brain’s Reward Center

A 2011 study from USC found that the brain places a higher value on winning when you’re in a group than when you’re by yourself. In this trial, winning in a group setting increased activity in an area of the brain associated with rewards as well as an area involved in social reasoning. The study participants who won while in a group setting were more likely to engage in risky and competitive behavior to keep winning. This helps explain why people are more likely to try something stupid, such as cheating, in order to win when they’re with their friends (or teammates).

When Toxins Attack the Brain

SPECT imaging shows that people who abuse alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription medications tend to have brains that have a toxic appearance. Brain scans of people with addictions show lower overall activity, which is associated with poor judgment and impulse control problems.

Hidden Brain Injuries Impair Judgment

A wealth of research shows that experiencing a blow to the head, say from a fastball to the temple, can lead to brain trauma that increases the risk of impulsivity, anxiety, poor judgment, drug and alcohol abuse, and more.

At Amen Clinics, we take a unique brain-body approach to diagnosis and treatment that includes brain SPECT imaging, as well as laboratory testing to check physical health, and other important factors that could be contributing to symptoms and bad behavior. By getting to the root cause of your symptoms and unwanted behaviors, we can create a more effective, personalized treatment plan for you.

If you want to join the tens of thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health, overcome their symptoms, and improved their quality of life at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.


  1. I think there is a far deeper issue with professional sports than this trivial technological circumventing completely arbitrary “rules” on what advantages is allowed to secure advantage in a mere game. My college roommate weighed only 100 pounds in high school. All the boys were required to go out for football. He had become skilled in science and he saw no value in getting knocked to the ground by boys who were bigger than he was. So he built a crude mechanical inverter which he connected to flashlight batteries and ran the alternating current through a step-up transformer which he wired to rubber pads and metal electrodes he strapped to his hands so when he blocked tacklers, he delivered an electric shock. Nobody could tackle him. The coach wanted to know how he did this so he proudly showed the coach how he would equip the team with electric shock pads by which to win every game. The coach was so mad he drove to his house to diatribe what a disrespectful criminal her son was, whereupon she went into such a violent laughing fit she fell to the floor. The madder the coach became the harder she laughed until he drove away in such fury he almost crashed his car. As far as her family was concerned there was nothing honorable or even legitimate about football because, like all competitive sports between teams where the winners are exalted solely through the public humiliation of the losers whose inferior performance is ascribed to the inferior content of their character and even their inferior fitness to survive in how society treats them.
    Baseball, Basketball, Football, all are designed to indoctrinate the public to accept separating the world into winners and losers for the purpose of creating the illusion it is right to behave like predators and get rich not by earning and creating wealth, but by stealing it through arbitrary rules of sportsmanship. It becomes acceptable to lock old people out of the job market after cheating them out of pensions and confiscate their homes they paid for through reverse mortgages. Sports usurps the title “hero” and synthesizes the drama and struggle of winning and overpays players, coaches, billion dollar stadiums at tax payer expense and produces neither wealth nor human culture as it sucks the life blood out of the economy and lowers the standard of living for everybody else. Pretending the junk culture of it all is honest rather than the cheating and theft it is through “fair game” of programming the public to squander their money on seven figure salaries for college sports coaches paid for by paying PhD faculty less than minimum wage and price gauging tuition plunging students it promises STEM jobs for which it floods the job market and damns them into a lifetime of poverty so severe they can never buy a house or start a family is what makes it all surpass illegal street crimes. Hacking secret signals from pitchers is too trivial to consider when identifying psychopathy.

    Comment by Robert Vincelette — February 28, 2020 @ 4:44 AM

  2. Wow, you sure do have an ax to grind which might be put to better use somewhere else. This post was about how the brain works not so much about a social commentary. Sports have a significant value in our world related to bringing people together to support a singular outcome, With so much that divides us, sports can at least provide an opportunity to cheer for our team and bring a sense of oneness with people no matter what else they do or what they believe, humanity has a moment in time when our team is playing to be united, That is good for brains and our national psyche for sure.

    Comment by David Uitdeflesch — February 28, 2020 @ 5:43 AM

  3. Wow!
    Great comment
    I would have never thought of it like that, but it makes sense
    Thank you

    Comment by Terri — February 28, 2020 @ 6:00 AM

  4. It sounds like this study coincides with narcissistic behavior and indicators. It makes sense that an injury to the brain could cause it to malfunction, but lack of empathy for the ones you hurt? I don’t know, empathy is an emotion and what causes us to love people, and care about how we treat them. Maybe that part of the brain that is injured is the emotional control panel. So….what is being done to heal brain injuries that cause people to hate and hurt each other with no remorse or empathy?
    And isn’t becoming addicted to anything a choice? A choice to over eat, over exercise, over smoke, over drink? I’m sorry , but those who are addicted to things have made the choice to overindulge in whatever it is they’re addicted to. It is not a disease. You cannot equalize cancer with alcoholism no matter how you try. Alcoholism is a choice that can be reversed by choosing to stop drinking. You may need help with that, but there is another choice to get help…………………….Drug abuse, the same. Overeating, the same. Overspending your money, the same.
    Brain injury??? i wonder………….

    Comment by Beth Joseph — February 28, 2020 @ 8:17 AM

  5. St. Augustine’s treatise On Lying is difficult to read but goes to the heart of the weakness of a liar…Should be mandatory reading for all politicians…This is not a brain problem…it’s a result of living in a society void of a moral foundation…

    Comment by Dr. Henry Sinopoli — February 28, 2020 @ 8:35 AM

  6. I agree with David that sports bring people together for a common goal, that being a stepping stone to Nationalism which is imperially divisive.

    Robert is absolutely spot on in his analyzation of the mind sets of those in the industry.

    The exploitation of Aaron Hernandez’ talent as a troubled youth, the neglect of his mental health and the subsequent disposal of him by the sports machine is a phenomenal example.

    It’s all fun and games until a brain injury ends in murder.

    Comment by Betsy Morris — February 28, 2020 @ 12:41 PM

  7. I believe you’ve misinterpreted addiction, as a disease. I’d rather use the term brain disorder, but addiction is medically recognized as a brain disease. Too many people pass judgment, without knowing what addiction actually is, and it’s complex effects on the brain. Addiction is not always a choice either. I’m a good example of this. I was in a near fatal auto accident, and became severely injured; both internally and externally. I was in major pain for 1-2 years, and was prescribed heavy and addictive, narcotic pain medications. By the time, I was out of the hospital, and in sub-acute physical rehabilitation, I was completely dependent on my doctor prescribed pain medications. I had to go through medical detox to recover from my addiction the opioids. The big pharma also created a dangerous epidemic of narcotic and opioid addiction. According to statistics from a national findings report in 2018, 20.3 million Americans suffer from substance abuse disorder. (

    Comment by Sharon M — March 2, 2020 @ 9:24 PM

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