The upside of cheating

Cheaters get a buzz from harmless deception

In a new study, people who cheated on a simple task felt a buzz afterward. That rush may encourage them to cheat again. 


Many people assume that cheaters and thieves will secretly feel shame or guilt. A new study challenges that. It finds that people who cheat without causing anyone much harm actually enjoy a little buzz afterward.

Scientists have barely explored this side of bad behavior, notes psychologist Nicole Ruedy at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her team found that people get an emotional high after mild cheating. And that rush may encourage them to cheat again. Her group published its findings September 2 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The scientists recruited 179 people for testing. Each was asked to unscramble as many words as possible from a list in four minutes. And all would get a dollar reward for every word they successfully unscrambled.

Each person’s test sheet had been stapled to a folder. After finishing the test, the volunteers were told to tear off and keep the test sheet, but turn in the folder. What no recruit knew: Inside the folder was a piece of copy paper that had recorded the test taker’s original answers.

Now the volunteers were given an answer sheet to check against their list of unscrambled words.

Each person conducted this review in private, without being watched. And the vast majority — roughly seven in every 10 participants — cheated. They added unscrambled words to their lists using the answer sheet as their guide. The researchers could find out, however, who did this and how many words they added. All they scientists had to do was compare a test taker’s worksheet against the copy paper in the folder that volunteer had turned in earlier.

Afterward, the researchers asked each test taker how she or he felt. Cheaters, on average, reported a surge in positive emotions and no guilt or shame.

In a follow-up study, the scientists recruited a person to record each volunteer’s score on a number test. And the score reporter was instructed to “cheat” — to report the test score as being higher than it really was. When that score was announced, many of the test takers realized the mistake but didn’t correct the error. They just accepted the higher score, which also came with a higher reward (in dollars). Here, too, the scientists found, the test takers got an emotional thrill from the deception, even though they had not actively cheated themselves.

In both cases, the stakes were low. Nobody risked arrest or even embarrassment from their cheating, notes Kurt Gray. A psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he did not work on the new study. Gray now wonders if people who stole money, not just a few unscrambled words, might feel as comfortable.

“Contrast stealing a pen from work with embezzling thousands of dollars,” Gray told Science News. A big theft that hurt people “may be accompanied by significant fear, guilt and paranoia.”

Power Words

embezzlement  To take or use property — especially money — that belongs to another and without their knowledge.

psychology  The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior.

emotion  A state of mind that’s influenced by one’s circumstances, mood or relationships with others.

paranoia  A mental condition where a person may feel unwarranted persecution or jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance.

Stephen Ornes lives in Nashville, Tenn., and his family has two rabbits, six chickens and a cat. He has written for Science News Explores since 2008 on topics including lightning, feral pigs, big bubbles and space junk.

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