Are We Hard-Wired to Enjoy Cheating?

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"Your cheatin' heart will make you weep," as Hank Williams once sang, and we all want to believe that it's true. Whether we're talking about a college student with exam answers written on his hand, or a tax cheat who's avoided paying the government, we want them to feel tormented by their own acts of duplicity, and sorry that they've pulled the wool over someone's eyes. 

They problem is that they aren't. Instead, as a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found, people who get away with cheating are likely to feel pretty good about it, as long as they're convinced no one has been hurt by their dishonesty.

Turns out money DOES change a person -- and not for the better.

The study's lead author, University of Washington business school post-doctoral researcher Nicole E. Ruedy, noted that dishonest people actually may experience what she called a "cheater's high" after doing something unethical.

VIDEO: How to Tell the Perfect Lie

"People expected an increase in negative emotion, or maybe a mix of negative and positive emotions, but that's not what we found," Ruedy explained. "Instead we found positive emotion, without accompanying guilt, shame or anxiety."

And that raises an even more intriguing question. Is our penchant to feel good about dishonesty something that we learn through experience? Or is "cheater's high" a capability that was hard-wired into our brains by evolution, because happy liars gained a competitive advantage over more morally conflicted humans?

There is considerable evidence that our ability to tell lies is evolutionary in origin. Other animals also practice deception -- Rhesus monkeys, for example, hide food to avoid having to share it with other monkeys.

Andrew Byrne and Nadia Corp, researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who've studied primate prevarication, have found that the capability for foisting falsehoods upon others appears to be linked to brain development. The size of the cortex, the outer brain region where advanced cognitive functions takes place, is a good predictor of how skilled a particular species will be at being untruthful.

"If you look around the animal world, deception is widespread, from small organisms to large ones," explained Kang Lee, a psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, who has studied the development and frequency of lying in children.

In addition to enabling animals to fool predators, deception also helps members of a species to compete against one another for needed resources. "Humans are doing the same thing."

We also know that humans display the ability to deceive at an early age.

A 2007 study by Vasudevi Reddy, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth in Great Britain, found that babies as young as 6 months feigned distress by crying in order to get attention from their mothers, and actually paused to see whether their mothers responded before crying again.