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!)


They are also the people who in the current economic climate make it to the top; they have no compunctions about firing staff or exercising bullying behavior in the workplace. In Ponzi schemes, they have no qualms about defrauding others because their focus is on personal enrichment, not on whether a widow will lose her life savings or not. Researchers in Germany and the U.S., including Gollwitzer, have observed that people rarely forget the name or the face of a cheater, even long after they’ve forgotten precisely what his or her act of cheating was: “Being sensitive toward cues of untrustworthiness appears to be an evolutionary adaptive strategy that is deeply rooted in humans’ social cognitive system.”

Gollwitzer says, “When a suspicious mindset is activated, people are more likely to behave uncooperatively and antisocially to prevent being exploited.” Cheaters as bosses will ultimately cripple an organization because it will become hemmed in by anxiety — and poor work performance — as everyone watches their backs.

Another renowned German researcher on cheating, Dr. Raoul Bell at the Institute for Experimental Psychology in Düsseldorf, says his team’s research “is stimulated by theories that claim that people’s brains may comprise highly specialized cheater-detection mechanisms that may have evolved to support reciprocal cooperation by facilitating the detection of those who cheat. This type of emotional memory is associated with different brain regions than other forms of ‘source memory,’ where non-emotional details have to be remembered (e.g., the amygdala).”

He goes on to explain that while we may believe that remembering and avoiding those who cheat is self-protective, what we don’t realize is that, despite the immediate personal benefits we reap by keeping our distance, we are essentially reducing the prevalence of cheating in a group or society by socially excluding the cheaters.

“Humans are a highly cooperative species, and there are many tasks that can be better solved when cooperating with one another — indeed, human labor is characterized by a high degree of specialization, and this would be impossible without cooperation or social exchange. Although cooperation is beneficial for the group as a whole, it can be shown that pure altruism is not an evolutionary stable strategy because altruistic groups are always in danger of being invaded by cheaters who benefit from the altruism of the other group members but shy away from reciprocating. Thus, egoistic strategies would be more successful than purely altruistic strategies, and replace these strategies in the long run. Cooperation can only evolve with mechanisms that protect against cheating, such as an ability to detect cheating, and to remember cheaters to avoid these individuals in future encounters.”

But what about hurtful betrayal committed by an intimate partner? Dr. David Morin, a psychiatrist in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, says that for some men cheating is closely associated with success, similar to having a nice car or the attention of many women. Basically, it’s about showing off.

Morin recounted a story of a male patient in his 40s; he would boast of his attractiveness and athletic prowess in high school, stating that he was charismatic and energetic. He was also selling drugs and was into serious partying. His badboy image attracted many girls, and he saw no reason to turn any of them down. His ways caught up with him as he grew older, but he still felt that he could get any woman he wanted. The fact that this man was also bipolar only fueled his impulsivity and further fed his grandiose delusion of being the greatest thing on Earth.

“In days past, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife’ was an important value because it was disruptive to small groups if a man was a predator,” Morin says. Today, societies are huge, and because of the widespread use of the internet, social mores are a little different. Cheaters may feel that they have more of a chance to get away with cheating. Working through an existing relationship can be difficult; taking up with someone else is simply easier for him or her. Narcissism and insecurity increase these tendencies, especially in those who struggle to commit. For them, quantity is more important than quality, and, as they get older, it can be an existential fear of loneliness and death as well.

Gollwitzer says that “Since the possibility to exploit others and to cheat is often so immediately rewarding and therefore enticing, mutual cooperation and long-term relationships would be unthinkable (or, at least, implausible) without a well-developed capability for detecting cheaters.” So cheaters rely on people unlike them: people whose inclination is to trust. A cheater works on this by presenting himself as an upstanding citizen, a pillar of the community, as someone who is charming but who persistently emphasizes how trustworthy he is. And yet, it’s all a game for cheaters. Morin suggests that we are all capable of cheating on some level.

In 2013 the University of Washington released a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, where more than a thousand of participating subjects (in England and the U.S.) cheated across diverse experiments when presented with the opportunity. More so, the cheaters showed greater satisfaction than those who did not. The study’s lead author, Nicole E. Ruedy, said: “People may experience a ‘cheater’s high’ after doing something unethical that doesn’t directly harm someone else.”

In one experiment, participants who cheated on math and logic problems were happier afterward than those who didn’t. Indeed, 68 percent of the group sneaked a look at the correct-answer button before replying, which the researchers counted as cheating. In yet another experiment, two groups were told they would get paid for solving math puzzles within a certain time frame. They sat in a room with someone who graded the puzzle. In one group the grader inflated the score, and in the other group an accurate result was given. None of the participants who received inflated scores corrected the “error.”

And so it went in experiment after experiment. On average, more than half of those who could cheat would, which was pretty much what the Harvard incident confirmed. They might even display self-righteous indignation at any suggestion that there should be consequences for their deceit.

Is cheating genetic, or is it learned behavior? Bell suggests that it is a combination of nature and nurture since human behavior is generally made up of genetic predispositions (e.g., psychopathy) and learning mechanisms. Cheating is not an exception. It’s always an interaction.

“There is some interesting research on honesty, humility … Honest people almost always make fair and honest decisions,” Bell says. “People with low honesty do not always cheat; they will show fair behavior when it is rewarded and cheating is punished. Thus, even people with a personal disposition toward cheating act in accordance with social norms if you give the right incentives.”


There are serious implications for society, Bell cautions. “It’s never beneficial when people think only about their own interest. However, often the problem is not that people do not have any social norms, but that they follow the norms of a minority. Technically speaking, this behavior cannot always be considered cheating. For instance, is being a whistleblower a heroic act or is it a dangerous violation of duty? It depends on your perspective. What is considered cheating by some people might not be considered cheating by others. It depends on the social norms that you have internalized.”

(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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