Cognitive Control Helps Cheaters To Stay Honest — And Honest People To Cheat

By Emma Young

Many of us are faced with daily temptations to cheat. You might be offered the chance to download pirated music, perhaps. Or you might wonder about passing your child off as younger than they are, to avoid buying them a ticket on public transport.

As the authors of a new paper, published in PNAS, point out, several lines of research propose that cognitive control is needed for us to resolve the conflict between wanting to cheat and wanting to be honest. We need, in other words, to make an effort to rein in our impulses. However, the new work, led by Sebastian Speer at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, shows that this means different things for different people. If you’re typically honest, cognitive control can turn you into a cheat.

The team recruited 40 young adults (aged 18-35) who were told they were taking part in a study into visual search (a later survey confirmed that none realised it was really about cheating). While in an MRI scanner, they were shown a series of pairs of “spot the difference” images — the sort you can find in any kids’ puzzle book. They were told that there were three differences between each pair (the colour in one region might be different in one of the images, for example, or an item included in one was missing from the other).

All that participants had to do was signal if and when they’d spotted these three differences, and they’d receive a small monetary reward. If they couldn’t find the three differences, they were not to signal. However, in only half the trials were there actually three differences. In a quarter of the trials, there were only two differences, and in the final quarter, there was only one. The participants had, then, regular opportunities to cheat — to report that they’d spotted three differences to gain the money, even though half the time this was impossible. The potential benefits weren’t small: a participant who cheated whenever they had the chance would earn about €35 vs €7.50 for someone who was always honest. And as far as the participants knew, the researchers would be oblivious to this cheating.

The researchers were, however, able to monitor not only all instances of cheating but also each participant’s brain activity through each of the trials. And their analysis of the data revealed a series of fascinating results:

  •  There was a big range in cheating behaviour: 17.5% of participants cheated on only one or two trials whereas 5% missed only one or two opportunities to cheat, with the rest falling somewhere in between.
  • The group was then divided into “honest” types (who cheated relatively infrequently) and “cheaters” (who cheated relatively often). And the team found that when faced with the opportunity to cheat, the honest ones showed greater activation of the “self-referential thinking network”. Our self-concepts are represented by this network, which includes the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex and temporoparietal junctions. The results suggest, then, that a more honest individual’s self-concept as being an “honest” person became relevant to their decision about whether to cheat or not. There was stronger connectivity within this network when they actually then behaved honestly vs dishonestly.
  • Cheaters showed stronger sensitivity to the prospect of financial reward than the honest types (as indicated by higher levels of activity in the nucleus accumbens, which plays a central role in the reward circuit); as the team explains, this means that cheaters “were more strongly driven by reward when making the decision whether to cheat or not”.
  • For cheaters, more cognitive control (represented by higher levels of activity in the inferior frontal gyrus and anterior cingulate cortex) was needed to overcome their tendency to be dishonest, whereas for honest types, more cognitive control was needed for them to overcome their tendency not to cheat, and dishonestly claim a payment.

Earlier studies into the role of cognitive control in regulating cheating behaviour have produced conflicting results. These new findings explain why: “Our results suggest that cognitive control is not needed to be honest or dishonest per se but that it depends on an individual’s moral default…cognitive control allows honest people to cheat at times, whereas it enables cheaters to sometimes be honest.”

Why would honest types want to overcome their honest impulses? Because, as the researchers note, it’s possible to strike a balance between being an “honest” person and also one who takes an opportunity to profit from cheating from time to time. But as we don’t like to change our self-concepts, and try to avoid this happening, honest people have to make an effort to overcome this barrier and cheat.

There are of course huge economic costs to dishonest behaviour, and major campaigns to discourage people from fare-dodging, for example. “These findings may prove to be useful for developing interventions targeted at reducing cheating and dishonesty,” the researchers write.

This may well be the case, but the results certainly suggest that there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Clearly, different things can drive people towards honesty — or the reverse.

Cognitive control increases honesty in cheaters but cheating in those who are honest

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest