What Causes People to Cheat?

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


When confronted with cheaters – whether in relationships, school, or at work — people often shake their heads and say, “How did they hope to get away with it?” However, a slew of new research from Germany and the United States indicates that cheaters show different brain function from those who don’t cheat, and that they’re likely to do it again … and again … and again …

Many of us find it difficult to detect cheaters because we’re wired differently from them. While they tend to be suspicious of good intent in others, those who are least likely to detect cheaters are most inclined to trust. Is trust a bad thing? Nope, scientists agree that trust and cooperation are essential for the positive functioning of societies, but the trusting are also prime prey for the cheaters. Yet many of us will cheat if we think we can get away with it, and we’ll love the experience because of the satisfaction high.

High-profile cheats have included New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, who now has the best-known groin in politics after repeated sexting scandals. In fact, Wall Street has had so many cheating scandals that they’re hardly worth listing, although one vivid case last year involved J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon. It was said that the losses by the so-called London Whale were a little more than $2 billion — until that figure edged closer to $9 billion.

In 2012, 70 of 125 Harvard students investigated in the biggest scandal in the college’s history made their way back to campus after a yearlong suspension for cheating in a course called “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress.” Quips abounded. Those who were exposed threatened to sue, claiming that it resulted in emotional distress, until lawyers told them they had no hope of winning. A former student — now working on Wall Street — told Bloomberg Businessweek, “Dragging us into this investigation when we have financial obligations and jobs seems very unfair.” Meanwhile, Thomas G. Stemberg, the founder of Staples Inc. and a Harvard alumnus, wrote a furious letter to the school after the basketball team lost two of its stars to the scandal, because he is the co-chair of the Friends of Harvard Basketball fundraising group.

“People can experience justice-related situations from different perspectives,” says Professor Mario Gollwitzer, a research psychologist at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Landau, Germany. “They can be victims, beneficiaries, or observers of injustice. Accordingly, people can be justice sensitive from the victim’s perspective, the beneficiary’s perspective and the observer’s perspective. Recent research has shown that these three justice-sensitivity perspectives are positively intercorrelated with traits and attitudes, such as belief in a just world and a sense of injustice.”

For example, “Observer sensitivity and beneficiary sensitivity correlate positively with prosocial dispositions [such as] empathy, social responsibility, modesty, or agreeableness, whereas victim sensitivity correlates positively with self-related concerns such as jealousy, Machiavellianism, neuroticism, vengeance, and paranoia.”


In other words, those who perceive the world in a negative way are likely to behave in a manner that reinforces their prejudices. They become the people they warn others against. They’re more likely to cheat, be delinquent, and take a risk without consideration of the impact on others. And if someone does something they don’t like, they will be more inclined to seek revenge and to never forgive.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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