Cheating is common, ranging from benign instances like looking up an answer on your phone during a pub quiz, to the fairly major, such as using a series of coughs to fraudulently bag yourself a million pounds on a popular TV game show. But wherever we fall on that scale, research suggests, we’re still likely to think of ourselves as honest and trustworthy.
There’s something of a tension here — we’re seemingly both prone to cheating and convinced of our own integrity. Matthew L. Stanley and colleagues from Duke University have one explanation for this apparent contradiction in their latest paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review: when we cheat, we claim we knew the answers all along.
Before the start of the study proper, the team conducted a pilot test with 95 participants, who were shown 24 general knowledge questions; half were easy (“how many legs does a spider have?”) while the other half were more difficult (“Which nation was the first to ratify the United Nations charter in 1945?”). No participants correctly answered any of the 12 difficult questions.
In the first study, 147 participants saw these 24 questions and had to type in the answers. Before answering, they were told the correct answer would be visible to them, upside down in a small font on the bottom right of their screens. Looking at the answer, they were told, as well as looking things up online, was considered cheating.
After a short unrelated task, participants were shown the same questions, this time with the answers included. They then indicated whether or not they had known the answer to the question before the beginning of the study.
These participants fared better than those in the pilot: they correctly answered 14% of the difficult questions. Given that nobody in the pilot group correctly answered these questions, this suggests that participants were cheating. And when they answered these difficult questions correctly, participants were also more likely to report that they knew the answer all along. That is, even though they likely cheated, they claimed to have known the answer anyway.
In a second study, participants were assigned to one of two conditions. The first — the cheating condition — replicated the initial study: participants were shown the correct answers on the bottom right hand of their screen. In the control condition, participants had no opportunity to cheat, but were shown the correct solution immediately after answering each question.
Unsurprisingly, those in the cheating condition answered more of the difficult questions than those in the control condition — and were more likely to later report that they knew the answers all along too.
In the final study, all 412 participants were able to see the answer on their screen — only this time, those in the control condition were told they could look at the answer if they didn’t know it themselves. As in the previous two studies, those in the cheating condition were subsequently more likely to indicate that they knew the answer all along, suggesting yet again a link between perceived (or claimed) knowledge and cheating.
The findings fit into a wider body of research that suggests we’re liable to lie to ourselves about who we are or how we behave. We distance ourselves from past mistakes or forget them altogether, and see ourselves as increasingly moral over time. What the study doesn’t explain is how people are experiencing these mistakes themselves. Are they just lying about having known the answer, fully aware that they’re not telling the truth? Or is there a level of self-deception: do people truly believing that they had the solution all along?
The study also poses interesting questions about how to prevent cheating. If we’re able to believe we’re honest and trustworthy literally immediately after engaging in duplicitous behaviour, making appeals to morality might not work: people might simply think “I would never do something like that!” Techniques that completely foreclose the possibility of cheating may have more mileage.