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Why Cheating Feels So Good

There are a lot of things that are wrong yet feel so right. Cheating, for some people, is one of them. And researchers are trying to figure out why


There are a lot of things that are wrong yet feel so right. Cheating, for some people, is one of them. And researchers are trying to figure out why.

In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called “The cheater’s high: The unexpected affective benefits of unethical behavior,” researchers tried to figure out why an unethical behavior might create a positive feeling.

First, the researchers wanted to confirm that people do in fact have this kind of positive feeling after cheating. Rita Handrich, from the blog The Jury Room, explains:

The researchers did multiple studies and found evidence for the cheater’s high over and over again. Those who cheated felt good. In one study, the experimenter’s asked the participants not to cheat since that would render their responses unreliable. Those who cheated anyway were more satisfied with themselves after the study than those who did not cheat. And, to underscore the point, cheaters who were given a reminder at the end of the test how important it was not to cheat said they felt better than the cheaters who were not given the reminder. Rather than the reminder serving as a cue to more ethical behavior (as in the research where the feeling someone is watching you results in better behavior), the cheating participants felt better when reminded to not do what they then went ahead and did.

The researchers put it this way:

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.

According to the New York Times, cheating might be something that is getting easier and easier to do, and that might contribute to our diffused guilt. “that we have so many ways to cheat anonymously, especially via the Web,” Scott Wiltermuth, a behavioral ethicist, told the Times. But it isn’t just software piracy or music downloads. A study last year looked at tax returns and insurance forms and found cheating there, too. 

More from Smithsonian.com:

Can We Excuse Cheating If It Supports a Good Cause?
The Future of Cheating in Sports

About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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