Why Do People Cheat?

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The NFL released a report this week concluding it was “more probable than not” the New England Patriots knew they were violating league rules and purposely deflated footballs used in a playoff game last year against the Indianapolis Colts.

The incident is likely to tarnish the reputation of quarterback Tom Brady, MVP of the Super Bowl and the only quarterback to compete in six championships.

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The incident raises questions about what motivates people to cut corners and whether anyone is immune to temptation.

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"My overall view is that moral character isn't this fixed thing that occurs from childhood where the typical motif is an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other," said David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston and author of "Out of Character: The Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us."

"We think of morality as a battle between short-term impulses and long-term impulses," he added. "Often, if you cheat, it can be great for you in that moment. However if you are found to be a cheater, in the long-term, that's terrible for you. There are costs and benefits, and different people have different prices."

In a 2008 study, DeSteno and colleague Piercarlo Valdesolo brought people into the lab, where participants were told they were going to have to do either an easy 10-minute task or a series of long, hard math and logic problems that would take 45 minutes. Whichever task they didn't do would need to be completed by the person who followed them in the workstation.

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Participants could assign themselves one of the tasks or use a virtual coin flip to decide which one they would do. Fewer than 10 percent of people gave themselves the hard job, the researchers reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The majority either took the easy way out or flipped the coin again and again until they got the answer they wanted.

Afterwards, "cheaters" rated their behavior as generally fair on a seven-point scale. But when they watched someone else do the same thing, they were much harsher in their judgments of immoral behavior.

The findings illustrate some of the ways that people can subconsciously rationalize their own behavior to justify actions that they know objectively to be wrong.

"The one thing we know about moral behavior from the past 10 years of research is that it's a lot more variable than anyone predicts," DeSteno said. "We are always saying, 'Oh my God, that is so out of character.' But there is always someone doing something out of character."

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A number of studies suggest that cheating has become more common in recent years, though none of the research has been done in a controlled experimental way, said Neal Kingston, director of the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at the University of Kansas in Lincoln.

Whether cheating is getting worse or we are simply more aware of it now, one thing is clear: Cheaters are getting savvier. Especially in cases of impersonation, Kingston said, methods seem to have become more sophisticated and scandals have become larger in scale.

"In 1974 I knew a case where a student discovered lax security in a GMAT testing center for students who registered late," Kingston said. "He paid someone to register late with him and as late-comers they were sat next to each other.

"After the test started and they signed their answer sheets, they each dropped them on the floor and picked up the one with the other person's name and took the test," he continued. "In a stroke of ironic justice, the person who paid scored significantly higher than the impersonator, but was stuck with the impersonator's score."

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