‘Cheater’s High’ Can Trump Guilt

Want to know the best way to prevent people from cheating? Don’t try too hard to stop them.

A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the worst thing an employer, a teacher, or a business can do is to set up an elaborate system to catch cheaters. People will inevitably rise to the challenge – not because they need the financial benefit of cheating but because they enjoy the high of beating the system. Take the challenge away and a lot of the cheating will vanish on its own.

The authors of the study—Nicole E. Ruedy at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, Celia Moore at the London Business School, Francesca Gino at Harvard Business, and Maurice E. Schweitzer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania—found that contrary to longstanding belief, people don’t necessarily feel guilty about cheating; in fact, they’re more likely to feel good about beating the system. This doesn’t apply to unethical behavior on a direct, personal level (such as stealing $5 from someone you know), but their research suggests it’s true when there is more distance between the cheater and cheated and a weaker sense of someone being hurt by the action. In one experiment, for example, more than two-thirds of the test subjects taking a math and logic test took advantage of opportunities to cheat, whether a monetary reward was attached to the outcome or not.

What lessons can be drawn from this? Employers who worry about workers stealing supplies and products are making a big mistake by imposing an elaborate system of supposed safeguards. That only heightens the emotional rewards of successful cheating, turning it into a game that more people are likely to play. A far more effective approach, the researchers suggest, is to stand back and let workers know they have your trust and confidence. That will take away much of the incentive. “To reduce cheating, I would change the culture, communicate your expectations and acknowledge that you’re trusting people to do the right thing,” Schweitzer told Knowledge@Wharton, the school’s online business analysis journal.

Schweitzer also recommends an amnesty program of some kind. Letting workers return stolen tools and other reusable goods is a surefire winner.


1 thought on “‘Cheater’s High’ Can Trump Guilt

  1. In the 1964 William Bowers study, “Student Dishonesty and its Control in College”, it was found that “perceived peer disapproval” was a more significant deterrent than personal disapproval. Nearly everyone agreed cheating was wrong, but half the students surveyed had cheated at least once anyway. So the best way to deter cheating would be to somehow reveal personal disapproval and communicate it between students. Schools with student Honor Councils typically had lower cheating rates.

    Another interesting thing from the study was that cheating was more likely on a “pop quiz” than on a final exam. The author suggested the student taking a surprise test may have felt cheated and therefore justified to returned the favor.

    As to the “affective” result of having cheated, Bowers did not go into that. But the implication is that peer culture may determine how you feel about the act. I think of gang cultures that expect someone to harm someone to get into the gang (not to mention fraternity cultures and their dangerous initiation rituals).

    The same factors may play a role in the business office. If authority sets rules that the peer culture sees as “petty and demeaning” then the worker may feel good about getting away with office supplies, etc.

    But I can’t agree with the premise that the best way to deal with the problem is to ignore it. If pens and paper are cheap, then make it okay to use them at home. But we need to take seriously the theft of computers, etc.

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