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Cheating makes you feel good - once you don't get caught

Oh, and only when nobody gets hurt either.

Image: Cheating via Shutterstock

HAVE YOU EVER cheated?

How did it make you feel? If you haven’t, you are probably imagining being overwrought with grief. But, seemingly, that will not be the case.

A group of researchers at the University of Washington have found that people who cheat are more likely to feel upbeat rather than remorseful afterwards. However, there are a couple of provisos – that the cheater is not caught and that they believe nobody was hurt by their dishonesty.

“When people do something wrong specifically to harm someone else, such as apply an electrical shock, the consistent reaction in previous research has been that they feel bad about their behaviour,” explained the study’s lead author Nicole E. Ruedy.

Our study reveals people actually may experience a ‘cheater’s high’ after doing something unethical that doesn’t directly harm someone else.

According to the findings from a number of experiments run in the US and England, even where there was no reward, people who cheated felt better than those who did not.

A little more than half the participants were men, with 400 from the general public in their late 20s or early 30s and the rest in their 20s at universities.

Participants predicted that they would feel bad after cheating but, instead, they showed a significant emotional boost.

In one test, respondents who cheated on maths and logic problems were happier than those who didn’t.

The participants were split up into two groups and placed at computers to answer questions. One set were given the option of clicking a button to reveal the answer – but they were told not to do this and figure it out themselves. However, 68 per cent of the respondents pressed the button, which the scientists called cheating.

In a separate experiment, respondents were asked to solve puzzles in a room and were told they would receive money for each one they got correct within a certain time.

The other person – posing as a participant – was to grade the test, they were told. In one group, the actor inflated the participant’s score when reporting it to the experimenter. In the other group, the actor scored the participant accurately. None of the participants in the group with the cheating actor reported the lie, the authors said.

In the third test, respondents were asked to unscramble anagrams in a particular order. They were told not to pass onto the next word until they had solved the one previous. The third jumble – unaagt – only has one answer: taguan, which is a species of flying squirrel. The odds of someone knowing that is minuscule, according to previous tests, so the authors deemed anyone who moved passed the third word to have cheated. More than half the participants did.

“The good feeling some people get when they cheat may be one reason people are unethical even when the payoff is small,” Ruedy said. “It’s important that we understand how our moral behaviour influences our emotions. Future research should examine whether this ‘cheater’s high’ could motivate people to repeat the unethical behaviour.”

The study was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology this week.

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