In light of the most recent round of cheating scandals in sports, The Boston Globe has an article that looks at the latest research on the psychology of cheating. It begins by noting that “new research has found, people are prone to cheat even when it is not in their best interest. Instead of carefully weighing the costs and benefits of breaking the rules, people can be heavily swayed by peer pressure, their mood, their image of themselves. Sometimes, people even cheat out of a sense of fairness.”
One of the interesting findings is this last idea of cheating “out of a sense of fairness”:
Paradoxically, one of the most powerful motivations for cheating, according to scholars who study decision-making, is a desire for fairness. . . . In a way, this is common sense: If an opponent is illegally gaining some advantage over me, I’ll want to balance things out. But what’s more surprising is the way the effect extends beyond situations in which cheating confers an advantage. Robert Kurzban, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that players in a game he created are less likely to behave selfishly when they know that other players aren’t behaving selfishly, even though being the only player to behave selfishly actually increases one’s winnings at the game. That would suggest that most people, if they could be assured no one else was cheating, would be content not to cheat.
Another fascinating finding concerns a study that measured people’s propensity to cheat on a test. Surprisingly, “the experimenters found a way to limit cheating that had nothing to do with the threat of getting caught. When they asked subjects to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember before taking the test, it virtually eliminated cheating.”