Why do rich celebrities steal groceries? Why do students risk their academic careers by cheating for just a few extra marks? A team of researchers may have the answer: because it feels good. Across several studies, Nicole Ruedy and her colleagues found that people expect that behaving unethically will make them feel bad, and yet when they take the chance to break the rules, it actually gives them a buzz – an effect the researchers dub “the cheater’s high”.
In one study, 179 students at a US university had the chance to earn cash rewards for solving anagrams. Forty-one per cent of them cheated by adding in solutions after they’d seen the answers. And after the test, these cheaters experienced a larger boost in positive emotions compared with the honest students.
Of course, it’s possible the cheaters’ burst of reward was due to the fact they’d earned themselves more money. To factor out financial reward, another study involved 161 students at a different university completing maths and logic problems on a computer. Given the opportunity, 68 per cent of these students cheated by clicking early for the answers. After the test, but not before-hand, the cheaters reported more positive emotion than students not given the chance to cheat.
Yet another study sought to uncover the reason why people get a kick from cheating. This time 205 people were recruited online (via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website) and had the chance to solve anagrams for cash. Some of the participants received a message that said “we realise we can’t check your answers … we hope you reported your answers honestly”. Its purpose was to undermine any attempts cheaters may make to tell themselves they hadn’t really broken the rules. In fact, those who lied about their score and received this message reported more self-satisfaction than those who cheated but didn’t get the message. Ruedy and her colleagues said this suggests the buzz of cheating comes not from self-deception (the warning message would have undermined this), but rather from the thrill of getting away with it.
It’s important to note this study is specifically about unethical behaviour that doesn’t involve directly harming other people. “The cheater’s high we document may … help explain puzzling findings, such as the pervasiveness of low stakes unethical behaviour,” the researchers said.
One problem with this research is that it involved contrived situations either conducted with students in a lab or online. It remains to be seen if the cheater’s high will be found in real world situations. Future research also needs to establish the time course and consequences of the phenomenon. Could the buzz of cheating encourage future unethical behaviour? Or does the initial satisfaction of rule-breaking give way to remorse?
Ruedy NE, Moore C, Gino F, and 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