The Cheater’s High

A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (abstractPDF) 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.

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  1. bob says:

    I think they develop the negative affect if they’re just bad at cheating. If you’re a kid and you cheat, your parents will probably scold you for it. You will then either try to do it in a way that they don’t notice, or just keep doing it until you “learn your lesson”. If you keep getting caught, you learn your lesson and are conditioned to feel bad whenever you try it. If you don’t get caught, you have the thrill of getting away with it every time. The study message fulfills the purpose of you getting “scolded”, but since they never scold you a second time for actually cheating you get the cheater’s high.

    I bet the negative affect would have kicked in if they had a second message saying, “just kidding, we can check your score and you did cheat, shame on you.”

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  2. caitlyn (ladyphlogiston) says:

    that actually makes sense – in life, cheating is generally part of the game. If you can find an easier way to do something, that’s better for you and probably better for society overall, especially if everyone can use the easier method. So we’re wired to respond positively.

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    • texagg04 says:

      False. You are conflating advancement in efficiency with what is considered “cheating”.

      Eli Whitney developing a way easier method of cotton processing is NOT cheating: although your definition would make it so.

      The “Cheater’s High” should not be seen as a move to reevaluate moral theories. Used to be a day in age (before rampant narcissism, hedonism and materialism) that people acknowledged that the impulse of the “Cheater’s High” was natural, but led to wrong behavior, and therefore were disciplined against it.

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  3. al says:

    “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.”

    –> rather than a thrill of getting away with it, how about some keep themselves in denial that they did cheat? along the lines of caitlyn’s comment “If you can find an easier way to do something, that’s better for you and probably better for society overall, especially if everyone can use the easier method. ” so, there is no thrill per se… in fact there may be depression/guilt.

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  4. Teobi says:

    Kinda off topic: It’s funny that in school you are told not to cheat, always depend on your memory. But when you are working, your boss tell you: why do you rely on your memory? Are you crazy? Just Google it, someone else already posted that info on line.

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  5. Rich says:

    Mightn’t people who cheat also be pretty likely to lie about their feelings, especially regarding cheating? Admitting they felt bad about doing what they did might not be easy for them.

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  6. Joe says:

    One problem I have about these “morality” experiments is the assumption that the choices made by the lab experiment participants (and measured as relevant data) qualify as”moral” or “ethical” choices in the first place. Human participants in a lab experiment, by default, are guaranteed no real and direct consequences from their choices. This is in contrast with moral choices in the real world where consequences are weighed against each other when making a moral decision.

    The study authors acknowledge this in the “Limitations” section: “One concern is that participants thought that cheating in our experimental setting was acceptable, and this may have diminished their
    negative affective responses.” So, how do they end up convincing themselves that these instances of “cheating” constitute real “unethical” responses rather than artificial responses teased by a lab experiment? You run another lab experiment: “In the pilot study we ran to assess whether participants thought cheating in exactly this type of laboratory setting was unethical (reported with Study 1a), our results revealed that participants rated this behavior as very unethical.”

    I think ethics and morality are very complex concepts that would be very elusive to quantify and measure in a lab setting. Certain contexts (a lab setting is but one of them) sometimes generate completely different but entirely ethical responses – eg, stealing food in a POW or death camp situation. Labelling something as “cheating” in an objective sense sounds erroneous in these contexts.

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