I defy anyone to deny having cheated on occasion. One obvious example: driving over the speed limit. Nobody ever does that, right? Or how about your tax return? The I.R.S. says that underreporting income and exaggerating deductions account for a gap between actual and reported taxes of around $345 billion a year.
The prevalence of cheating has increased in recent years, and the Internet is a major culprit. It’s easier to cheat and remain anonymous in front of a computer screen, opening the door to all manner of moral lapses. Stealing software is a common one.
But what about good old, time-honored guilt? Why doesn’t feeling bad about pulling a fast one serve as a deterrent? One reason: the act of cheating makes us feel good.
Findings published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrate how cheating can serve as its own reward. A series of experiments was designed to compare the feelings of test takers who were honest to the feelings of those who cheated.
When asked before testing how they would feel if they cheated, most of the participants said they would feel bad about it. Then they had their baseline moods assessed and took a word-unscrambling test. Upon completion, they were given an answer key and asked to report the number of their correct answers. The participants were also told that they would be given $1 for each correct one, but they didn’t know that the researchers could see if wrong answers had been corrected.
With the perceived threat of being caught out of the way, 41% of the participants corrected mistakes. A post-test mood assessment showed that the cheaters got an emotional boost from the test experience, but the honest participants didn’t. The implications of this boost were made clear by Nicole E. Ruedy, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking and the study’s lead author: “The fact that people feel happier after cheating is disturbing, because there is emotional reinforcement of the behavior, meaning they could be more likely to do it again.”
With another group, the researchers had the subjects take a test on a computer and offered no financial incentive. They were told, however, that their performance would be an indicator of intelligence and predictive of future success. Part of the group was also shown a pop-up message providing a correct answer as they took the test, but was told to ignore it. Cheaters once again put moral considerations aside; about 68% of the segment seeing the pop-up clicked the button for the correct answer, and this group also reported a lift in upbeat feelings.
Another revealing finding in this report came from a study in which subjects were paired with a partner to solve math problems. The partner was actually a plant who was instructed to elevate the overall scores when reporting the results, thus cheating for the pair. Did anyone object to this cheating? Not a one.
By giving us an emotional lift, cheating can set up a reward pattern that makes it more likely to recur despite a stated moral position against cheating. As the study authors note, “even though individuals predict they will feel guilty and have increased levels of negative affect after engaging in unethical behavior … individuals who cheat on different problem-solving tasks consistently experience more positive affect than those who do not.”
So why exactly does cheating, which we know is wrong, make us feel good? The researchers offered a simple answer: the thrill of getting away with something. Thus, cheating itself provides a reward, regardless of whether it results in financial gain, dominance over a rival, or other tangible success. This thrill also helps explain why people will often cheat even in situations where’s little to gain by doing so.
Cheating’s Okay…As Long as No One Gets Hurt?
Luckily, the cheater’s “feel-good” afterglow does not seem to occur in situations where cheating hurts someone else. But of course, cheaters may skew their own awareness of their behavior’s effect. This kind of narrow-mindedness can allow us to think that cheating on our taxes, for example, doesn’t really “hurt” anybody. People often play mind games with themselves to make cheating acceptable. “When we cheat, we have a tendency to rationalize the behavior,” notes Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker. “We can’t change the past, so we change our attitude and justify our actions. But that adjustment, while it may make us feel better, also makes us more likely to cheat again: we cheat, we rationalize it, we accept it, and we cheat once more.”
So with all these conscious and subconscious reinforcers of cheating behavior, how can we avoid giving in to it? Well, there are still some honest souls out there whose sense of morality will override the temptation. In the testing arena, use of an honor code has been shown to be an effective deterrent. Having test takers read a statement confirming the importance of honesty—or, better yet, sign a statement showing their allegiance to an honor code—has been found to reduce overall cheating. As for stopping cheating in the noncontrolled environment of the real world… good luck with that.
“Lighten” Things Up to Keep Cheating Down
Research published in Psychological Science showed that test takers who sat in a dimly lit room were more likely to cheat. The researchers deduced that the darkness gave the cheaters an “illusory anonymity” – they felt that their behavior in the low lighting made them less likely to be detected.