Reaching the End of a Task Makes People More Likely to Cheat

A study shows that when given a repetitive task and the ability to get away with cheating, people will be sneaky

Hariadhi via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Runners will sprint to cross the finish line, college students may throw one last party or rush to check off a list of things to do on campus before they graduate. But when the end draws near some behaviors aren't so beneficial or light-hearted. New research suggests that people are more likely to cheat when they get close to finishing, reports Daniel Yudkin for Scientific American.

Research forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that when faced with a task that has an end, and little chance of being caught, people are more likely to cheat and deceive others to get ahead.

The research team ran a couple of experiments with more than 2,500 people. In a coin-tossing experiment, the participants would guess heads or tails and win a cash prize for each time they got it right. Since the coin toss should be fifty-fifty, the researchers could tell in aggregate if people were more likely to cheat. In early rounds, the percentages of correct guesses lined up with what probability would predict. Few people were cheating. But in later rounds, the results deviated, especially when people neared the end of their designated number of flips.

In an essay-grading test, participants were paid by the time it took to evaluate seven or ten papers. A secret timer logged how long it actually took. Again, the results showed that as people got to the end of their task (the final few papers), they would cheat to gain a greater reward. In this case, they reported spending at least 25 percent more time on the final essay than they actually did. 

Yudkin, a PhD candidate in social psychology, writes:

The implications of this research extend beyond the walls of the laboratory. Political terms, job tenures, school years, golf games—all happen over a finite period of time. We’d be wise to keep an extra-vigilant eye, therefore, on lame-duck senators, students in spring semester, and golf partners on the eighteenth hole.

Fortunately, this impulse to cheat might be curbed by the threat of being caught or by knowledge that rules exist for a reason. For example, people are less likely to skirt online paywalls if they read a compelling reason to pay for an article. In other words, people are swayed by an argument for what is fair. Humans might not be a completely degenerate species, despite our cheating tendencies.

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