What Causes People to Cheat?



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 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 Dr. Mario Gollwitzer, chair of social psychology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. “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.

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 anti-socially 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 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.”

Bell 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,” says Bell.

You May Also Like

How Our Minds, Neurosexism, and Society Create the “Male” and “Female” Brain
Enhancing Experience Through the Phenomenological Method

Sponsored Link

About Us

A magazine dedicated to the brain.

We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

Education and Training

Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to our newsletter below and never miss the news.

Stay Connected