The Cheater’s High and Biological Positive Reinforcement: Dishonesty is the Best Policy
Written by Ronald Leung
Graphic by Lars Leetaru
When was the last time you were warned not to cheat? Whether it was sitting in a large lecture hall nervously sweating before a desperate midterm, or reading a course outline with bolded letters, our professors and instructors repeat the mantra of honesty and fairness, and for good reason. A 2012 U.S. national study by the Josephson Institute’s Center for Youth Ethics reported that 51% of high schoolers admitted to have cheated on an exam. The dishonesty doesn’t stop in school – The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that 40% of resumes contain lies, and a further 78% are misleading. General membership transforms into a leadership role; a little nudge here and there, and the resume is suddenly built on superficial and fragile ground.
It’s not hard to rationalize cheating on exams when academic success and entry into professional and graduate schools heavily relies on the all-mighty GPA. Despite the unethical repercussions of cheating, it still plagues classrooms and lecture halls because the immediate gains – getting a higher mark – surpass the less tangible unfairness of receiving false credit. Similarly, resumes are an important gateway into getting hired. When prospective applicants are faced with the paradoxical dilemma of entry-level jobs that require previous experience, its unsurprising many falsify a prior position to get their foot into the door. Those found to have invented educational degrees or employment experience often face disgracing departures, regardless of their work performance. Marilee Jones was a beloved MIT Admissions dean in 2007 when her spotty stories about her academic credentials caught up to her. Known for her caring and engaging personality and the national campaign she headed to combat stress of college admissions, many of her acquaintances publicly supported her, saying that a one-time past mistake should not eclipse her otherwise stellar work. She was still asked to resign.
A recent study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology September 2013 reveals a surprising cheater’s high that overtakes any feelings of guilt that were once previously thought to be the ruling emotion surrounding cheating. The new research shows that as long as the cheating doesn’t seem to directly inflict harm, you’d feel great. Any discomfort that you’d remember looking back is simply your inner moral authority rewriting the memory. The feeling may come from “people congratulating themselves on their cleverness” postulates Scott Wiltermuth, an assistant professor in the business school at the University of Southern California who was not involved in the study. Cheating obviously extends beyond the academic sphere – unfair behavior in relationships, torrenting media, and taxes are only a sample of examples that continue to be pervasive.
One of the study’s experiments had participants first predict how they would feel if they cheated. The general consensus was a negative reaction, in line with the assumed reaction of guilt. After being given a baseline assessment of their mood, the participants then completed a word-unscrambling test where they were handed an answer key afterwards and told to score their own responses. A powerful financial incentive, $1 for every right answer, was also present. Participants were unaware that the researchers could tell if they changed their answers when marking their own test, and 41% of the test-takers cheated. Another assessment of their mood after the test was given, and on average, the cheaters experienced an emotional boost that honest participants didn’t. Feeling happier after committing a dishonest act is troubling because there is an “emotional reinforcement of the behavior, meaning they could be more likely to do it again,” said the study’s lead author, Nicole E. Ruedy, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking.
Even with the removal of the financial prize, a different group of participants who took a test on a computer with a flickering pop-up offering the correct answer, also had 68% of the group cheat at least once. Among those who gave in to the pop-up, more positive emotions were also recorded in an assessment afterwards. Cheating indirectly also gave similar feelings of elation. In a different experiment, study subjects ‘worked’ with another participant who was actually part of the research team, and this fake participant would record the answers of a test they would both take. In many instances, the subject would clearly see the ‘participant’ cheat and increase their scores, but no action was undertaken.
This study clearly identifies different scenarios of cheating that have resulted in positive reinforcement, indicating that cheaters are likely to cheat again. The addictive feelings have replaced guilt, which is no longer a significant barrier in preventing dishonesty. As a result, scientists have suggested alternative ways to deal with cheating, including the reduction of the perception of cleverness associated with pulling off a successful cheat, and also increased emphasis on the victims of dishonest behavior. Regardless, cheating is a complex moral and biological topic that is heavily intertwined with societal pressures for success, and as old as human interaction. This uphill battle to higher moral ground is here to stay.
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