Why We Cheat


Cheating is to "act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage". Most of us are guilty and we've all certainly heard about behavior in politics and sports that would be defined as cheating.

Why do we cheat? A recent study found the primary motivator is dread which is more powerful than the thought of a reward.

Makes sense! How averse are you to losing money, status, or a job promotion? We knew from past studies that men cheat more than women, and it's not exclusive to humans.

Even single celled organisms cheat. Some bacteria steal products made by others. Viruses take over cells to make copies of themselves. Among higher animals, the size of a brain's neocortex is associated with intelligence, and the larger it is, the more the animal exhibits deceptive behavior.

We're also learning from the new study that people who observed others cheating tended to cheat more. So, cheating is contagious! It's also enhanced when the situation makes it easy for them to be dishonest.

Ultimately, people do it because they perceive real or imagined benefits. What's interesting about this is some research indicate creative people are likelier to cheat. Perhaps they're better at self-deception and rationalizing their behavior.

Because cheating wastes resources and lowers productivity, it needs to be discouraged. Research shows us harsh penalties don't work. Instead, people respond to education that emphasizes the cost and damage of cheating. And, Controlling it early in life is effective. We can't prevent all cheating but understanding it will allow us to limit this costly instinct.

More Information

Op-ed: Why people cheat and what needs to change
Why people cheat in sports, banking and science, according to researchers Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall.

Why We Cheat [PDF]
"Scientists are unraveling the causes of fraud and dishonesty and devising new strategies for rooting them out."