Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Loving to cheat

To be filed in the normal-people-are-more-like-sociopaths-than-they-would-like-to-think folder (but sociopaths are evil because they lie and cheat!), the NY Times reports recent research suggesting that despite popular wisdom that people feel guilty for doing bad things like cheating, people feel pretty good after they cheat.  "Cheating's Surprising Thrill"

In the study’s initial experiments, participants were asked to predict how they would feel if they cheated. Badly, they generally reported.

Another set of participants was given a baseline assessment of their moods. Then they took a word-unscrambling test. After finishing, they were handed an answer key, told to check their answers and asked to report the number of correct ones. For every right answer, they would earn $1.

Participants did not know that researchers could tell if they corrected wrong answers; 41 percent did so.

The follow-up assessment of their moods indeed showed that the cheaters, on average, felt an emotional boost that the honest participants didn’t.

“The fact that people feel happier after cheating is disturbing, because there is emotional reinforcement of the behavior, meaning they could be more likely to do it again,” said Nicole E. Ruedy, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking.

Then she and her colleagues removed the financial incentive. A new group would take a test on a computer. The results, they were told, would correlate with intelligence and a likelihood of future success.

But 77 participants were told that if they saw a pop-up message offering them the correct answer, they should ignore it and continue working.

About 68 percent of this group cheated at least once, clicking the button for the correct answer. In the follow-up assessment, this group also reported a rise in upbeat feelings.

Why did people feel so good about cheating? Was it relief at not being caught? That would imply that while cheating, they felt stress or distress. Or had they deceived themselves, rationalizing or minimizing the cheating to feel better?

Stripping away these possibilities, the researchers found that those who cheated experienced thrill, self-satisfaction, a sense of superiority.

The effect persisted even when subjects cheated indirectly. Next, they would solve math problems with someone who was just pretending to be a participant. The fake participant reported the results, elevating the scores, thus cheating for both. But no actual participant objected. And again, they felt just fine about it.

“We were a little appalled,” Dr. Ruedy said.

I thought these reactions were funny. "We were a little appalled"? "The fact that people feel happier after cheating is disturbing"? Because this study is just a snapshot of reality. This is what people do everyday. If most people will cheat in situations like this, it just means that most people will cheat in situations like this. And that's a problem for governments seeking to maximize their tax revenue and insurance companies who do not get 100% accurate reports from their customers, but why do other people care? This is apparently just how people are. This experiment was not like the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, which put people in unusual circumstances to provoke unusual behavior. These were everyday people doing everyday things, and it turns out that people cheat about as often as they jaywalk or commit traffic violations. Where's the story?

The shock for me is not that the behavior is so common or that the participants were not wracked with guilt after committing such petty infractions, it's that anybody was "appalled" or found it "disturbing". Of course people are going to be happy about cheating because they are happy when they're winning. Our brain wants us to get ahead, our culture encourages us to get ahead. We are naturally competitive. You don't need to be an interspecies predator to get a rush from getting one up on someone, whether it is called "honestly earned" like a cunning stock trade based on another's ignorance or poor judgment, or is called "cheating" because it happens to exploit obvious loopholes in the system. It reminds me of the time my Swedish friend came to visit and I said the pleasure of capitalism over socialism is not that you get a particular thing, but that you get more than someone else. She didn't agree at all until we went to a theme park where we bought VIP passes that allowed us to go to the front of the line and she realized that a big part of her pleasure was not in going on more attractions, but in saving time as compared to other people.

Here's what I want in the follow-up study. Do the participants lie to themselves about the cheating? If they're not lying to themselves about the cheating, are we lying to ourselves about how frequently and guiltlessly people lie, cheat, despite having empathy, despite having consciences and the ability to feel guilt? Here's a crazy thought -- maybe we shouldn't want to discourage people from cheating more than we already do. Maybe there are upsides to "cheating" or the willingness to cheat. That would certainly explain why it is so prevalent.


  1. This just ties in with morality. Doesn't matter if it's an Empath or Socio, people (empaths) will always find a way to justify what they do so they can sleep at night. The end goal is all that matters.

    1. not impulscontrole?
      more than morality?

    2. It's also largely a situational basis in which the decision is made to cheat or not. Variables and what not. There;s nothing wrong with cheating in the first place so there is no need to justify doing so.

    3. Why do they need to justify it? Who do they justify things for?

  2. Did you ever hear the expression "duper's delight?" That's the
    wry smile that crosses a cheater's features when they feel they've
    put one over on a stupid person. It doesn't matter what the infraction
    is. Everyone from Bernard Madoff to Jodi Arias has been
    photographed with this facial expression. It's a natural lie detector.
    I once took a sociology class at a jounior colledge. The instructor
    fancied himself an authority on human behavior. He said, "I can place
    a list of names in a safe, and tell you who is going to do well in the
    class and who is going to drop out."
    He had absolutely no confidence me. Judging by his facial expressions
    and callas treatment of me, he would have predicted that I would be
    one of the dropouts. Turns out, I was the among the few that payed
    attention in the class. My answers indicated I had a grasp of the
    subject. I got the highest grades on the tests, but the man still
    couldn't "get" me. I defied all his expectations. That worried him.
    I'm sure he thought I was cheating.
    After one of tests he made an announcement to the class: "You know,
    when someone gets such a high grade on a test, I like to reveal thier
    name so they can get credit." "-----------, got the highest score."
    The Mawfu ker thought he was being clever, but I knew what he was
    up to.
    Meanwhile, another student in the class tried to search me out.
    I suspected he was homosexual because of his dress. Many people
    errounously view me as homosexual because of "effet'" mannerisms.
    He couldn't figure me out either. How could I do so well, without
    making much of an effort? "You take the class for the credit, not the
    One day the professor made an announcement to the class: "You
    know a student came to me and said he was trying very hard in the
    class and he knows of a person who's cheating...."
    He didn't indicate who made the comment or if I was a suspect, but
    I suspected that my "gay buddy" was trying to frame me not only
    because of his mystifaction about how I could do so well in the class
    WITHOUT cheating, but my unresponsiveness to him as well.
    On the day of the final examination, I took my usual seat near the
    wastepaper basket. (The wastepaper basket is usually situated by the
    door, I was rather phobic about being near people.) During the course
    of the test a curious thing happened. The instructor unseated himself
    and walked towards the back of the room right by my desk, appearently to check if I was cheating! He obviously didn't find
    anything. When the test results came back, it turned out that I had the
    second highest score in the class. This relieved his burden, and
    proved his theory that I was some strange abberation and he actually
    treated me with respect during a passing encounter some mounths

    1. I like your story. Pretty easy to write good tests if you are paying attention in class. But what I loved most is the misguided assumptions some people have about their ability to check people out, or however someone called his ability back under a different article..

      Many of my teachers apparently thought I wasn't paying attention. And at one point I thus got bad grades in the field of "participation in class". It was some type of general behavioral grade. And you know how they measured it? The teachers all occasionally asked test questions trying to find out if people remembered stuff or understood the topics treated in class. There usually was a huge competitions of fingers raised to be allowed to answer. Why would or should you join this competition, especially if the questions asked were really simple? Nothing but a pure repetition. My math and physics teacher, told me he had argued that my other teachers should simply ask me instead of waiting for me to raise my hand. Telling them he had never caught me unable to answer his questions, which suggested to him that obviously I was paying attention. He also observed that I was the only one who occasionally asked questions myself, which also is some type of participation all of them should have realized.

  3. Hierarchy's pretty big as a motivator for cheating, especially on things like tests. Even without financial incentive, people are basically indoctrinated through over a decade of true Pavlovian conditioning that tests will determine their place in the grander social hierarchy through a wonderful device called public education. And in a very real sense, it has a strong say in everything from their economic status to their vocation. Education, standardized as it is these days, shares the same basic methodology as any other form of indoctrination: it creates a central value system (grades) which it causes its participants to invest in emotionally, thereby controlling their behavior (in order to 'motivate them to learn') because they want to receive positive outcomes as arbitrated by their chosen value system and get a return on their emotional investment.

    It's not a huge leap to imagine that people who are invested in receiving the highest results possible on tests in order to look good to their classmates/become a lawyer/whatever would cheat even without obvious external incentive to do so, because the incentive is already built into the social context: higher results = better standing = peer acclaim/parental approval/privilege gained. Pretty simple.

    At the crossroads of practicality and morality, practicality usually wins. Morality's modus operandi is to condition and punish, to keep things the 'way they should be' by trying to control unwanted behaviors through various types of enforcement, be it a slap on the face, a traffic ticket, or a guided missile.

    'Why would people cheat?' has a very simple answer. Because under the current rules, they're losing somehow. Maybe the loss is just convenience, but it could also be time, money, or any number of other motivations. Cheating only exists because rules exist, but we only focus on the violations of the rules, not the way that the rules shape people's situations, or who makes the rules, or what they made them to accomplish. It's sickeningly reactionary, really.

    Until the discussion shifts from 'Could cheating be beneficial?' to 'Why are the rules driving people to cheat in order to obtain benefits?' it's a pointless exercise.

    1. The best pupil my school ever had, a class mate and a good friend, once did something really interesting. We had one class mate which compared to the rest was some type of outsider. His family were farmers, the only other student from the social lower levels was the star student himself. His father was a tile man, an artisan compared to all the other academics or professional fathers.

      Now the farmer's boy was also the only one who spoke with a strong vernacular, which no one else did in my high school class. In any case he always got a really bad grades in German essay writing. So Charley, the star student, got interested in what would happen if he wrote the essay. He always got straight A's. It needed a rather elaborate preparation. Officially Charly was ill, but in fact he was in the boy's toilet writing the essay for the farmer's son, Eugen. Essays were one of my favorite. They took the whole day of five hours. So it was easy to smuggle in the parts that Charley had already written. It all worked fine in the end, and his presence in school wasn't discovered. Charley escaped via the back entrance after the whole story.

      Now something really funny happened. For the first time ever Charley did not get his usual straight A, but only a slightly better grade then Eugen usually got himself.

      Concerning cheating. We had to repeat the story during the final high school exam, where one of my friends needed at least one task to be answered correctly in mathematics to escape the oral exam.

      I somehow lost trace of Eugen, or essay writing after that, but he did very well as an engineer.

  4. Until the discussion shifts from 'Could cheating be beneficial?' to 'Why are the rules driving people to cheat in order to obtain benefits?' it's a pointless exercise.

    cheating is a fuck you to authority. somehow the power over the entity setting the rules is thrilling.

    you thrill them by letting it happen.

    what you suggest is that maybe you empower/free a person, thereby possibly giving them positive experiece around an authority figure. I mean it may or may not work for a sociopath..idk.

    i would like ta ask a question abt cheating on spouses. Does the act make you a better bf or gf? Do you end up giving better sex, being more attentive and giving/loving. I am asking about a situation where the partner does not know.

    I'd like to hear from the people who may feel relationships are confining but like the stability of one. or ones which consider themselves the alpha in their relationships (delusion alpha or not..i dont carer what the possible reality may be).

  5. It's human nature to envy the power that those at the top of a hierarchy possess. While sociopaths may cheat without any concern about the morality of it, the empathic majority needs to self justify the behavior.
    All that is necessary is for the cheater to believe that they are undervalued within the hierarchy. To the extent that a narcissistic grandiosity gap exists, there is a corresponding belief that the "system" is currently cheating them out of necessary recognition/compensation. Cheating is understood to be settling a score.
    The boost in mood is likely a faint sense of having restored moral order in a way similar to Robin Hood. It's not the stealing/cheating in and of itself that brings the good feelings, but rather the sense of reclaiming "justice".

    My suspicion is that the degree of entitlement and grandiosity an individual experiences has a direct relationship with the willingness/desire to cheat.

    1. "Cheating is understood to be settling a score."

      is it ok to let a bf or gf cheat where they think it is their secret? Bec they hate authority figures and they know if they're found out they will get dumped?

      do i lie to myself if i let this happen? i actively dissociate from my ego. plus i have abandonment issues. is that masochistic? it feels a little masochistic or self sacrificing, but since i feel the relationship is really pleasing i am kindsa sorta (but not really) ok with it :o

      i feel like i have the upper hand, but i dont know..that feeels a bit like i am lying to myself. . .. and yet idk, i still feel like the dominant one here.

    2. Dominance is settled by the accurate one word (not ego boosting) answer to this question:

      Who needs who more?

  6. No one is saying that psychos and normal people don't have behavior in common. The difference is the psycho has a black pit in place of a heart and soul.

    1. how do you know about the existence of black pits unless you have one yourself? I am quite sure you don't... life is not so black and white, my friend.

    2. People who cheat are psychos? Who is a psycho? And who is normal? I suspect, as did most of my psychology professors that "normal" doesn't actually exist, and if it does, the people in that category are certainly a small minority.

      And thus far there is zero empirical evidence for a soul, in fact, there isn't even an operational definition. How can you say something is missing when you can't even observe it when its there?

  7. Ah yeah, I know it's more complicated. I have known a few and that's the only way I can explain it using broad strokes. It's not a criticism so much as an observation.

  8. I wonder if human culture from say 10000 bce compared to today's culture is so different that people's reaction to cheating, that is, to become excited and thereby more likely to do it again is merely because our culture today is so bizarre compared to what we evolved in. In other words, we have an old brain design and a very new culture, and they don't work well together. This may explain a whole lot of mental disorder.

    1. I concur! I often think that the littlest things in life are so needlessly complicated that one shouldn't be surprised if some prefer to simply circumvent the whole bloody system whenever possible.

  9. Interesting article, but not surprising. I immediately thought about taxes and insurances plus the equally important legal rules versus ethics/morality. Who wouldn't read the policy first before reporting an insurance issue? The first time I noticed it, was by observing the tricks of friends that studied law. He occasionally only traveled because of a travel insurance.

    Taxes are a similar field, a wide field, not only over here i think, always possible to save money with certain "legal tax tricks". If you do not not plan to not pay anything and use special instruments to start with. As a student I worked in a tax specialist's office. One of their star clients I dealt with, a very successful entrepreneur, managed to get free government money for his two kids to study. They simply invested in real estate, which on the surface diminished their income. I didn't get any free state money based on my father's income. Don't misunderstand, I wasn't jealous but simply surprised and of course advised my parents which helped my younger sister.

    Besides it is always possible to create indirect taxes that don't harm the well off, successful and are ultimately only paid by the wider area of employees with little way to move or escape them.

    It's systemic that ultimately the "weak", less informed/educated, less aware of the law are the "victims" in our system. With a rather larger majority blaming them for their own problems. The wiser ones learn to conform on the surface, always with the specific laws concerned in sight and exploit law or its loop holes for their own benefit.

    Yes, I suspect George Zimmerman did exactly that, I also doubt the had to be a sociopath to realize it.

    The rest of the socio/psychopath story as I perceive it here, at least to a large extend, seems to be simply dishonesty and prevarications. Could the "weak" ones ultimately only be the victims of moral or ethical rules that do not rule our world?

  10. One of the defining characteristics of psychopathy is lack of empathy. When an empathic person sees someone's face contorted with emotion, the observer will immediately experience a similar emotion, or at least a strong response to the other person's expression. This reaction is reflexive. It's as if the ability to read others' emotions exists a priori. A sensitive observer will read another person's emotional state like you would pull your finger back from a scalding hot object. There isn't any thought process involved, it occurs involuntarily. Empathy is a primal means of communication and it can foment strong bonds between people.

    The sociopath has a reduced capacity to experience empathy in the same way. A sociopathic observer will see an emotional facial expression, but it won't register with immediate visceral impact like it would to an empathetic person. To an empathetic individual, seeing emotion, is feeling emotion. This is not to say that a sociopath can't learn to "empathize" in a more intellectual way though. Just like placing your finger into a basic solution might not result in immediate reflexive pain (like touching a hot object), but you learn empirically that it damages you all the same - and so you avoid immersing your appendages in basic solutions.

    This particular blog entry describes a study in which a sampling of people engaged in games where they were given the opportunity to cheat while thinking they could get away with it. Those that cheated felt satisfaction. Why didn't they feel guilty or experience self loathing? It's because there was nobody there to frown at them. If someone caught them cheating and had given a frown or look of disdain, assuming that the subjects in this study were capable of experiencing empathy, I believe that they would have felt guilty. Their response to the tester's look of disgust would have been one of immediate shame, followed by attempts to rationalize their actions and ease the feelings of guilt. The cheating participants in this study weren't given any cues of disapproval, so the empathetic stimulus, or trigger was missing. Since that empathetic response is largely what separates sociopaths from empathetic people, it stands to reason that the participants in this study experienced things the way a sociopath might have.

    1. Exquisite comment. But if I may, I doubt that reading or recognizing emotions can be described an a priori ability, meaning independent of a learning process. This is no accent, I also always doubted that Chomsky's universal grammar structure is somehow hardwired into the brain.

      I would be very, very interested to take the basic test with images of people showing diverse emotions. Admittedly when I read about these tests a couple of stories cross my mind. Centrally an event when a friend and me witnessed a serious accident. The man driving was dead, the woman next to him was brought to the hospital understandably somehow hysterical, but there was something else. My friend felt very, very sorry for her, but I for whatever reason didn't. She had survived after all with hardly a scar. My friend was irritated and furious that I didn't express empathy for the woman. The reactions of the woman felt odd. I cannot completely explain, I couldn't at the time. But when we helped her out of the car wrack and called the ambulance she did not pay any attention to the dealy wounded man next to her. Maybe it was obvious, he couldn't be helped anymore, but she did not pay much attention to him at all. And I think that felt odd.

      When we visited the lady in the hospital later, she told us the whole story. The dead man was the boss the lady worked for as a secretary. He was married. The man's wife was also a partial owner of the company. During the short holiday in France she had tried to convince him to get divorced, which resulted in a verbal argument. The man reminded her, he had always told her he wouldn't divorce and she had agreed to this arrangement. They had this arrangement for about two years before the event. During the last days the had only had heavy arguments. As a result he had bought an airplane ticket for her to get back home on her own. He felt unable to take her along after the argument. She made a big scene that he had to at least drive her to the airport himself. He had told her he would pay for a cab, which she did not accet. She insisted he take her there himself. That's how the accident inside the car the argument had gone on diverting his attention.

      For whatever reason, this is one of the story that always goes through my mind when I read about tests of response to emotions on faces. Would I respond without knowing the whole context. Would I have responded differently had the lady showed more concern for the dead man next to her? Would I respond to pure expressions of emotions on faces without context? Concerning some of the faces with some type of 25% emotions, as they are sometimes called, I even can easily understand people are having troubles to recognize them.

      I doubt recognition of emotions is really an a priori versus an a posteriori ability, meaning a learned ability. I also doubt that mirroring other's emotions is automatic without dependence on circumstances, situations and basic empathy or dislike of the person concerned in the real world. If I see a face showing fear, why should I feel fear without knowing anything about the context? If I am in a real life situation and witness it, I may look for the context that triggers it, but simply mirror it? I somehow doubt.

    2. Too long to proofread all:

      can be described [as] an a priori ability

      At least in the simplified fashion your choice of "a priori" suggests.

    3. Good points, your main one being that often times context can precede and thereby affect one's reaction to emotional stimuli. I agree with this in a sense but I think that even in situations where context precedes an emotional cue, an empathic individual will still feel an emotional response before rationalizing or applying what they believe is the appropriate contextual framework. By this I'm not implying that rationalization can't greatly affect the nature of the initial emotional response, I'm merely saying that the base emotion occurred first, and rationalization, or application of preceding contextual framework second. Also, its worth keeping in mind that this chronology - of emotional response followed by context - occurs within tiny fractions of a second. It's near impossible to accurately interpret without using equipment to monitor in a lab setting.

      Getting back to the study, they reported that subjects felt satisfaction after cheating, and felt "superior" during the act of cheating. There was no conflicted feelings, and no need to rationalize their actions. Had they been confronted about their actions by someone openly expressing disappointment, I think the results would have been different for at least some of the participants.

      Regardless of chronology or anything else though, I do agree that context shapes how emotional cues and feelings are ultimately processed. In the case of this particular study though, it appears that the context would have supported feelings of guilt , had the emotional cues been present. What I really find interesting is that in the absence of emotional cues in response to cheating, the participants displayed behavior that could be called "sociopathic" (rightly or wrongly). They took advantage of opportunities outside of the rules in order to win the game, and they displayed no measurable guilt while doing so, or remorse afterwards. I wonder how different the results would have been, had the investigators done a follow up where they appealed to the participants' sense of empathy (by displaying obvious disapproval to them upon cheating).


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