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The Cheater's High -- Perhaps They Prosper After All

Posted  October 10, 2013

By Gordon Schnell

Cheaters never prosper.  At least that is what we are told at an early age by parents and teachers to keep us on the right side of the great moral divide.  The truth is, cheaters do pretty well.  And not just financially.  They thrive emotionally too, feeling quite pleased with themselves and their wayward wanderings.

That is the unexpected finding from a new study just published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  It set out to test the generally accepted notion that unethical or immoral behavior triggers a negative emotional affect — guilt, shame, remorse.  What the study found instead is that behaving badly can actually cause a decidedly positive effect, something the researchers coined a “cheater’s high.”

This comes from a series of experiments involving more than a thousand people in the U.S. and England.  They participated in a variety of math and logic tests, where some of them were given ample opportunity to cheat, and then responded to questionnaires that measured their mood both before and after the tests.  The results unequivocally demonstrated a significant emotional boost for those who cheated.

Across 6 studies, we find that even though individuals predict they will feel guilty and have increased levels of negative affect after engaging in unethical behavior [], individuals who cheat on different problem-solving tasks consistently experience more positive affect than those who do not [].

This enhanced mood resulted whether or not there was a financial benefit from cheating.  It likewise occurred when the cheating was indirect, through another person cheating for the benefit of both individuals.  It even occurred when the test subjects were specifically directed not to cheat.  In fact, these cheaters reportedly felt even better about themselves then those cheaters who were not so forewarned.

“We were a little appalled,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Nicole Ruedy of the University of Washington, told the New York Times.  “The fact that people feel happier after cheating is disturbing, because there is emotional reinforcement of the behavior, meaning they could be more likely to do it again.”

Why the emotional high from behaving so low?  The study posited three possible explanations.  Cheating can deliver concrete rewards in the form of financial, social and psychological gains (e.g., additional money, beating an opponent, better grades).  It can provide a greater sense of autonomy and control by sidestepping rules which others are bound to follow.  And it can present an interesting and enjoyable challenge invoking a sense of pride or “thrill” when accomplished without getting caught.

It is this last explanation which seemed to carry the most weight with Dr. Ruedy and her team: “our findings suggest that the cheater’s high reflects the thrill of having gotten away with cheating.”  As the study points out, this explanation also comports with anecdotal accounts referenced in other research of an “emotional seduction” or a “sneaky thrill” from engaging in “forbidden” behavior.  It also is consistent with the Ruedy study’s opening quote from Frank Abagnale, the swindler made famous in the movie Catch Me If You Can: “I was heady with happiness[,] . . . the most delightful sensation I’d ever experienced.”

So what is the take-away from all of this; that we are doomed to exist in a world of rampant fraud and corruption because it is good for the heart and soul (in addition to the bank account)?  Not necessarily.  There are two significant limitations to the study that offer some glimmer of hope in this otherwise disquieting commentary on the state of our social psyche.  It did not involve unethical behavior that results in direct harm to someone else.  Nor did it measure how long the “high” lasted and whether it diminishes or disappears altogether with time and self-reflection.

These are areas of study for another day (though their already exists some research suggesting the cheater’s high does not transcend these conditions of direct harm or extended duration).  In the meantime, Dr. Ruedy and her colleagues have given us some valuable food for thought and perhaps a better understanding of what really goes on inside the mind of a cheater and how best to discourage the misbehavior going forward.  Otherwise, if we allow cheaters to prosper both materially and psychologically, we can surely expect the ever-expanding parade of fraud to continue no matter how many tax cheats, embezzlers, sports dopers and academic crooks are ruined or locked away.

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