A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (abstract; PDF) explores “the cheater’s high.” The authors are Nicole Ruedy, Celia Moore, Francesca Gino, and Maurice E. Schweitzer. Here’s the abstract:
Many theories of moral behavior assume that unethical behavior triggers negative affect. In this article, we challenge this assumption and demonstrate that unethical behavior can trigger positive affect, which we term a “cheater’s high.” Across 6 studies, we find that even though individuals predict they will feel guilty and have increased levels of negative affect after engaging in unethical behavior (Studies 1a and 1b), individuals who cheat on different problem-solving tasks consistently experience more positive affect than those who do not (Studies 2-5). We find that this heightened positive affect does not depend on self-selection (Studies 3 and 4), and it is not due to the accrual of undeserved financial rewards (Study 4). Cheating is associated with feelings of self-satisfaction, and the boost in positive affect from cheating persists even when prospects for self-deception about unethical behavior are reduced (Study 5). Our results have important implications for models of ethical decision making, moral behavior, and self-regulatory theory.
A blog post on the BPS Research Digest expands on Study 5:
This time 205 people were recruited online (via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website) and had the chance to solve anagrams for cash. Some of the participants received a message that said “we realise we can’t check your answers … we hope you reported your answers honestly.” Its purpose was to undermine any attempts cheaters may make to tell themselves they hadn’t really broken the rules. In fact, those who lied about their score and received this message reported more self-satisfaction than those who cheated but didn’t get the message. Ruedy and her colleagues said this suggests the buzz of cheating comes not from self-deception (the warning message would have undermined this), but rather from the thrill of getting away with it.