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How can cheating be wrong when it feels so right?

Monday, October 7, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

i cheatI think I was in college when Barbara Mandrell came out with this song for cheaters everywhere. A few decades later, I listened to my niece talk about tools she uses to identify plagiarism in her college freshman students. So I asked my (then) high school kids about cheating. They looked at me as though I was from another planet. “Of course we cheat. Not on the important stuff, but on homework and extra credit? All the time.”

I was taken aback. I knew they believed there was too much busy work in high school assignments but I was unaware they routinely shared answers with classmates or read synopses of books online to get extra credit points for actually reading the book in high school English classes. Then, to my surprise, they began to tell stories about how various students had cheated and gotten the highest scores in the class when they had not even opened a book. There was no rancor. Instead, they laughed and began to seem elated as they described how, as a group, their respective classmates had beaten the system repeatedly.

Now they are in college. I don’t ask what is happening there. But I was intrigued by a study that just came across my desk describing “cheater’s high”. And I recalled the oddly buoyant moods of both my kids as they talked about ways to beat the (high school) system. So I read on. In short, the research predicts a buoyant rather than remorseful mood if you get away with cheating and believe no one was hurt. It’s like a victimless crime. No one gets hurt and you walk away. You feel smug, superior, and upbeat. The researcher’s named this upbeat response to getting away with cheating, the “cheater’s high”.

The researchers did multiple studies and found evidence for the cheater’s high over and over again. Those who cheated felt good. In one study, the experimenter’s asked the participants not to cheat since that would render their responses unreliable. Those who cheated anyway were more satisfied with themselves after the study than those who did not cheat. And, to underscore the point, cheaters who were given a reminder at the end of the test how important it was not to cheat said they felt better than the cheaters who were not given the reminder. Rather than the reminder serving as a cue to more ethical behavior (as in the research where the feeling someone is watching you results in better behavior), the cheating participants felt better when reminded to not do what they then went ahead and did.

As I came to the end of the article, a single sentence reminded me again of the odd giggling I observed as my kids exchanged stories about cheating exploits.

“Quite possibly, when groups of people coordinate an effort to cheat the system, it could exacerbate the cheater’s high by diffusing responsibility for negative outcomes and building a sense of camaraderie from cheating together.”

That is exactly what I saw and heard. I began to think about instances of corporate corruption and unethical behavior that have larger consequences than my kids seemed to think cheating on “busywork” in high school had. We often do pretrial research for cases involving bad behavior of corporate employees. During deliberations, mock jurors say things like “He has no remorse” or “She’s only sorry she got caught” and I wonder if what they are seeing and hearing are adult examples of cheater’s high.

While the stereotype and repeated prediction is that people will feel bad when they make unethical choices, as these authors assert, “they actually experience a boost in positive affect”. If cheating really does make you feel good–it is powerfully reinforcing. While that isn’t an excuse (and we doubt mock jurors would support that sort of defense) it does show us that common wisdom about cheating is very similar to common wisdom about sexual harassment.

When asked to consider how they would behave in a situation involving being the victim of sexual harassment, people routinely say they would report it immediately. In reality, they rarely do report the harassment.

When asked to consider how someone would feel after behaving unethically or cheating, people routinely predict negative feelings. What this research says is the opposite–if you believe no one is really hurt by the behavior, you feel giddy.

It also occurs to me that the admonitions that jurors get from judges every day (don’t discuss the case with anyone, don’t read anything, don’t do internet research) is almost an invitation to a ‘cheater’s high’. They cheat, they are proud of what they have done, and they feel better about their jury service than those who didn’t cheat? Really? Oy.

It’s a troubling idea. If behaving badly results in a cheater’s high–does it make it more likely you will repeat the same behaviors in the future given the opportunity?

Ruedy NE, Moore C, Gino F, & Schweitzer ME (2013). The cheater’s high: The unexpected affective benefits of unethical behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 105 (4), 531-48 PMID: 24000799


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