From a very good 2011 NYTimes article by Benedict Carey, here are a few excerpts on some of the psychological dynamics behind cheating:
[P]aradoxically, it’s often an obsession with fairness that leads people to begin cutting corners in the first place.
“Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness,” said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the use of prescription drugs to improve intellectual performance. “Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you’re not cheating, you’re restoring fairness.”
The boilerplate tale of a good soul gone wrong is well known. It begins with small infractions — illegally downloading a few songs, skimming small amounts from the register, lies of omission on taxes — and grows by increments. The experiment becomes a hobby that becomes a way of life. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Bernard Madoff said his Ponzi scheme grew slowly from an investment advisory business that he began as a sideline for certain clients.
This slippery-slope story obscures the process of moving to the dark side; namely, that people subconsciously seek shortcuts more than they realize — and make a deliberate decision when they begin to cheat in earnest.
In a series of recent studies, Dan Ariely of Duke University and his colleagues gave college students opportunities to cheat on a general knowledge test. In one, students were instructed to transfer their answers onto a form with color-in bubbles, to register their official score. Some received bubble sheets with the correct answers seemingly inadvertently shaded in gray, and changed about 20 percent of their answers. A follow-up study demonstrated that they were unaware of the magnitude of their dishonesty. They were cheating without being fully aware of it.
Yet the behavior changes once a clear rule is in place. “If you specifically tell people in these studies not to use the answer key and just sign their name,” said Zoe Chance, a doctoral student at Harvard who worked on some of the experiments, “they won’t look at it.”
David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston and co-author of the . . . book “Out of Character,” about deception and other misbehavior, said: “With all of these kinds of decisions there’s a battle between short- and long-term gains, a tension between the more virtuous choice and the less virtuous one. And of course there are outside factors that can sway that arrow to one side or another.”
That is, low-level cheating may be natural and even productive in some situations; the brain naturally seeks useful shortcuts. But most people tend to follow rules they accept as fair, even when they have the opportunity and a strong incentive to break them.
In short, the move from small infractions to a deliberate pattern of deception or fraud is less an incremental slide than a deliberate strategy. And in most people it takes shape for personal, and often very emotional, reasons, psychologists say.
One of the most obvious of these is resentment of an authority or a specific rule. The evidence of this is easy enough to see in everyday life, with people flouting laws about cellphone use, smoking, the wearing of helmets. In studies of workplace behavior, psychologists have found that in situations where bosses are abusive, many employees withhold the unpaid extras that help an organization, like being courteous to customers or helping co-workers with problems.
Yet perhaps the most powerful urge to cheat stems from a deep sense of unfairness, psychologists say. As people first begin to compete and compare themselves with others, as early as middle school, they also begin to learn of others’ hidden advantages. Private tutors. Family money. Alumni connections. A regular golf game with the boss. Against a competitor with such advantages, taking credit for other people’s work at the office is not only easier, it can seem only fair.
Once the cheating starts, it’s natural to impute it to others. “When it comes to negative characteristics, we tend to overestimate how much others have in common with us,” said David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University.
That is to say: A corner cutter often begins to think everyone else is cheating after he has started cheating, not before.
“And if they are subsequently rewarded for the extra productivity, they tend to internalize the feeling of pride and view their success as due to inherent ability and not something else they were using,” said Dr. DeSteno.
Finally, in the winner-take-all environment that characterizes many competitive fields, cheating feels like a hedge against that most degrading sensation: being a chump. The fear of finishing out of the money and hearing someone say, “Wait, you mean to tell me you could have and you didn’t?” Psychologists argue that the sensation of being duped — anger, self-blame, bitterness — is such a singular cocktail that it forces an uncomfortable kind of self-awareness.
How much of a fool am I? How did I not see this?
It happens every day to people who resist cheating. Nothing fair about it.
Read the entire article here.
Related Situationist posts: