Call it cheater’s high, or duping delight, but psychologists have long known about the thrill of getting away with pulling one off on others. But for the most part, they’ve found it in psychopaths and others who thrive off the sense of power it gives them over other people.
“A lot of it has to do with the cleverness that people feel,”
says the study’s lead author Nicole Ruedy, a postdoc at the University of Washington,
“The idea that they’ve figured out a way to cheat successfully gives them a sense of accomplishment.”
That contradicts previous data that suggests that dishonest actions and intentionally deceiving others makes people feel guilty and worse about themselves.
“These findings struck me as surprising,”
says David Callahan, author of “The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead,” who was not associated with the research. In his interviews, he says, cheaters say that
“they often feel conflicted or not so great.”
“There is this immediate boost,” she says,
“But we don’t know yet what the long term emotional response would be if people were to reflect on their behavior.”
“It’s the same high you would get if you were stuck in a long line and somebody comes and pulls you out and brings you to the front, saying ‘You don’t belong back there,'”
“It’s a short lived euphoria, but you’ve just gotten something for nothing and something for nothing is always a bit of a high.”
Why the rampant dishonesty?
“We live in a time when the incentives to cut corners to get ahead academically, financially or professionally are higher probably than they ever have been,”
“There’s lax enforcement in lot of key areas. The watchdogs are sleeping and in some cases, they’ve been put to sleep,”
“You don’t want to be the chump who dots his I’s and crosses his T’s when everyone else is cheating like crazy,”
Yet before you despair about the unethical hole into which our society is falling, it’s worth noting that in the study, no one was visibly harmed by the cheating — and that could be a reason for the feel-good vibes cheaters felt. Appreciating that cheating is harming others is often critical in reining in immoral behavior. It’s far easier to rationalize cheating on your taxes if you see them as funding projects you oppose than it is if you see it as taking money away from hungry children, police and firefighters, for example.
To test that, Ruedy is planning to study the cheater’s high in conditions where the harm that results is made explicit to see if the good feelings are affected by this knowledge. Hopefully, she’ll find that the thrill is gone if it comes at a cost to others.