Study of Studies January/February 2014

Who Cheats—and Why

Is it about inequity? Or atheism? Or does it just feel good? Recent studies try to make new scientific sense of an old human problem.
Sam Island

The take-home final exam for Harvard University’s 2012 Introduction to Congress course was open-book, open-note, and open-Internet. The only source students weren’t allowed to consult was other people.

But consult they did, and within a few months the university was investigating nearly half the class for plagiarizing or improperly collaborating. Other cheating scandals, at the Air Force Academy and New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, prompt the question: What kind of person tends to cheat?

A 2009 survey suggested that young people do. It found that 51 percent of teens age 17 or younger believed that cheating was necessary for success, while only 10 percent of people older than 50 thought the same [1]. And in a 2012 study testing prior findings that men are less honest than women, researchers found that women are just as likely to lie for a financial reward—if that reward is big enough [2]. Men with wide faces, however, are more likely than those with narrower faces to cheat when there’s cash at stake [3]. Researchers suspect that high testosterone, which correlates with wider faces in men, may provide an extra jolt of fearlessness that spurs cheaters on.

Other traits that correlate with dishonesty, according to a 2013 study that measured students’ propensity to lie to strangers for a small financial gain, include having divorced parents and majoring in business [4]. And while merely being religious does not predict cheating, a separate study found that people who believe in a kind and loving God are more likely to cheat than those who believe in an angry God [5].

Given that cheating often leads to serious consequences—about half the students investigated after the Harvard exam were forced to temporarily withdraw from school—why do we continue to do it? Maybe because technology makes it so easy: access to copy/paste tools is associated with a higher rate of cheating [6]. Or maybe we’re just tired. A 2009 study found that when participants were made to write an essay without using the letters A or N, an exercise intended to wear out their self-control, they were more likely to cheat on a later task [7].

Perhaps the most compelling reason for our deviance, though, is that it makes us feel good. Among participants in a recent study, those who cheated on an anagram quiz reported more positive feelings than those who played it straight—even though most people predict that they will feel guilty after doing something dishonest. The study’s authors dubbed this effect the “cheater’s high” [8].

The Studies:

[1] Josephson Institute of Ethics, “A Study of Values and Behavior Concerning Integrity: The Impact of Age, Cynicism and High School Character” (Oct. 2009)

[2] Childs, “Gender Difference in Lying” (Economics Letters, Feb. 2012)

[3] Geniole et al., “Fearless Dominance Mediates the Relationship Between the Facial Width-to-Height Ratio and Willingness to Cheat” (Personality and Individual Differences, Jan. 2014)

[4] Childs, “Personal Characteristics and Lying” (Economics Letters, Dec. 2013)

[5] Shariff and Norenzayan, “Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior” (International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, April 2011)

[6] Roberts and Wasieleski, “Moral Reasoning in Computer-Based Task Environments: Exploring the Interplay Between Cognitive and Technological Factors on Individuals’ Propensity to Break Rules” (Journal of Business Ethics, Oct. 2012)

[7] Mead et al., “Too Tired to Tell the Truth: Self-Control Resource Depletion and Dishonesty” (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2009)

[8] Ruedy et al., “The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Oct. 2013)

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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