We’re brought up being told that “cheaters never prosper, cheaters only cheat themselves, cheating leads only to a hollow victory and comes with a weight of shame and guilt.”
At least that’s what my parents told me, over and over. But what a University of Washington researcher told me makes me wonder if they were lying because it turns out that cheating makes people feel good.
Dr. Nicole Ruedy, currently a post-doctoral research associate at the UW, says the study she led, which is now published in “The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” began with work she was doing on cheating and power, but “we began to see a strong pattern in the data which indicated the emotional after effects of cheating were not what we thought. I was working on my doctoral thesis at the time and I went to my adviser and said ‘This is what we should be studying.'”
That led Ruedy and fellow researchers from the London Business School, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard to write up “The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior.” In short, the paper summarized a series of tests where cheaters’ moods were measured after they’d cheated.
“We found that instead of guilt and shame there was a small boost in positive emotion,” she said. “They felt more self-satisfied.”
Her reaction? “We were a little appalled,” Ruedy told The New York Times.
She told me this “cheater’s high” appears to be rooted in feelings of “cleverness, of beating the system or putting one over on somebody,” and mostly occurred when the cheater didn’t feel he or she was victimizing anyone specifically.
Maybe that explains why behavioral ethicists see cheating on the rise. According to a recent Times article, software piracy costs companies $63 billion a year, globally. The gap each year between what people actually make and what they report to the IRS is about $345 billion.
Ruedy thinks this research is important on two fronts- one disturbing and the other hopeful.
“The danger,” she said, “is that this might be self-replicating. That the high cheaters feel might encourage them to cheat more and more and maybe even go to further lengths to get it.”
In other words, if you do something and feel good, you could set up a loop between your brain and your behavior. It’s just like smoking or doing drugs and that worries Ruedy.
What reassures her is that getting to the heart of the cheater’s high gives us the weapons to kill that buzz. If cheating is rife when it’s seen as victimless, make it crystal clear what the real effect of cheating is on others. If the buzz is based on feeling superior and clever, go to great pains to point out that it would be easy for anyone to cheat. They don’t have to be big brained, just dishonest.