Cheaters Gone Wild!

July 20th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Am I wrong or is there a whole lot of cheating going on these days? And is cheating more widespread than ever before? I don’t know, but it sure seems like it, and from sources both expected and unexpected. Of course, there are the usual suspects, including students, financiers, pharmaceutical companies, politicians, and professional athletes. But cheating is cropping up in populations that have previously been perceived as paragons of virtue, such as teachers, medical professionals, scientists, and the military.

So why all the cheating? Though I wasn’t able to find an iota of research studying cheating in business, politics, or sports, there is a plethora of polls and studies on cheating among students. The most robust finding is that cheating in school has been increasing steadily in recent years and is now considered an epidemic. Reasons offered by students who cheat include fear of failure, cheating as being an accepted norm, pressure to excel from parents and society, and a culture of “success at any cost.” These rationalizations could apply equally well to all walks of life in which cheating is prevalent.

One argument that we often hear is that cheating is a reflection of our culture’s moral decline. Respect, honor, integrity, and accountability just don’t mean much any more in a world where other “values,” such as greed, celebrity, power, have taken precedence over the traditional values that have provided our country’s moral compass for the past 230-plus years. Moreover, a search on line reveals many articles that indict our ever-more-invasive media as the cause of this moral decline.

These explanations offered so far are perfectly reasonable (and I welcome others that I haven’t thought of), yet I sense something much more…primal in understanding the causes of this growing culture of cheating in America (and I presume other countries). What lies at the heart of cheating in any avenue of life, whether personal, academic, or career, is self-interest, which most would argue is a particularly vile human attribute. At the same time, there may be nothing more fundamental to human existence than self-interest which, at its foundation, is an expression of our most basic instinct to survive.

Our ability to engage in moral reasoning (and presumably to resist that survival instinct) is one thing that is supposed to separate us from animals. The evidence does indicate that morality is both wired into us and learned from our culture. And there are many examples of people every day who appear to act morally and against their own self-interests. Yet, we are not as far from animals as many would like to think; we are still driven primarily by that survival instinct.

Thankfully, there is also evidence that altruism ,the opposite of self-interest, is wired into us and serves the role of helping us function within a social group. But even altruism can be interpreted as an extension of the survival instinct because when we place the interests of others ahead of our own, they are more likely to help us in the future, thus increasing our chances of survival (apologies for the somewhat cynical view of altruism). The reality is that, when push comes to shove, humans will likely choose self-interest and survival over doing what is morally right and helping others.

So what does this have to do with cheating? Our survival instinct (and the accompanying self-interest) exerts a greater influence over our behavior when our lives are threatened. But, let’s be realistic, it isn’t very often that our lives are directly threatened these days, for example, we are rarely confronted by sabre-toothed tigers or warring tribes on a daily basis (okay, never). However, our lives are indirectly endangered quite frequently, particularly our financial lives, where loss of income, savings, and other means of modern-day survival are put in jeopardy.

Self-interest, and the accompanying motivation to cheat, would likely increase during periods of economic crisis and instability, which we are experiencing these days in spades. And most of the cheating that goes on has a clear relationship with financial security, which translates into increased chances of survival in our modern world.

Cheating in high school means better grades and likely admittance into better colleges. Cheating in college provides admission to better graduate programs and more job opportunities. Cheating in graduate school results in better job offers. Cheating among athletes with performance-enhancing drugs provides a performance advantage on the field that can start as early as high school and continue into the professional and Olympic ranks. Cheating in the financial industry results in a bigger paycheck and faster and higher advancement. Cheating by corporations ensures continuing market share and profits (and survival) when companies are dying daily. In sum, cheating offers immediate and future rewards. In all cases, cheating is in one’s self-interest and increases one’s chances of survival (except perhaps when caught).

This threat to survival has become so great that even those in “virtuous” professions, as I mentioned, teaching, medicine, and the military, for example, feel compelled to cheat to get ahead in their respective professions. When those with high moral standing are cheating, well, that doesn’t speak well of our society. In every “jungle” these days, it seems, survival of the fittest rules.

My thesis can’t explain all forms of cheating, most notably marital infidelity, though it could be argued that men who cheat on their wives are, symbolically or in reality, spreading their seed to at least ensure their genetic survival. But I digress.

If my theory about the relationship between economic uncertainty and cheating is correct, then we would expect cheating to be cyclic, with increases during economic downturn and decreases during economic booms. For example, was there a rise in cheating during the Great Depression and the recent recessions of the last decade? My intuition tells me yes, but science often discredits what seems intuitively clear. Cheating, for that matter, may occur more during economic high times because people feel invincible and entitled. Or there is no relationship between cheating and the economy, and cheating is just a part of human nature that may serve individual interests while disserving societal interests.

If cheating is so ubiquitous, perhaps it serves some societal need. Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, argued that deviant behavior is necessary for a society to function because it shows citizens the boundaries of appropriate behavior and can also lead to necessary reforms. Yet, the costs to society for cheating are significant. Those who cheat rise unfairly in our meritocratic culture preventing those who are deserving from taking their rightful place. Cheaters who attain positions of power within a culture are less moral and less capable, thus their immorality spreads like a virus throughout the culture and the quality of that culture declines. Cheating also involves breaking the rules that govern and cohere society which can lead to public distrust and cynicism and to a breakdown in society itself.

Sadly, much like “real” crime (which cheating can be), deterrence isn’t very effective. When you consider the ubiquity of cheating across the societal spectrum, it is clear that the rewards are sufficiently motivating, most cheaters don’t get caught, and the punishments aren’t severe enough to prevent it.

As a result, and even more sadly, if there is a way to get ahead more easily and with less effort, many people will open that door and, with little apparent deliberation or remorse, walk right through it to satisfy their own self-interests and ensure their survival.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)


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11 Responses to “Cheaters Gone Wild!”



  1. larry ennis |

    Dr. Jim
    A good piece although I found myself being bounced around a bit. One part of me agreeing while another part could not. Cheating as most agree is the direct opposite of honesty. Both can be in my opinion considered moral issues.
    I agree that bad economic times can cause morally good people to switch alliances between honesty and cheating or good and bad depending on how you characterize it. However, what about the person that manages remain morally intact no matter how bad things get. Such people run the risk of being held in contempt by those that do cheat.
    I don’t believe there has ever been a time in our history when cheating and lying was more rampant.
    Cheating in order to survive? A nice excuse but not in this country. I believe that many present day federally funded welfare programs encourage cheating and lying. Its gone on so long that many people cannot remember life any other way.


  2. Brianna |

    “Cheating in high school means better grades and likely admittance into better colleges. Cheating in college provides admission to better graduate programs and more job opportunities. Cheating in graduate school results in better job offers. Cheating among athletes with performance-enhancing drugs provides a performance advantage on the field that can start as early as high school and continue into the professional and Olympic ranks. Cheating in the financial industry results in a bigger paycheck and faster and higher advancement. Cheating by corporations ensures continuing market share and profits (and survival) when companies are dying daily. In sum, cheating offers immediate and future rewards. In all cases, cheating is in one’s self-interest and increases one’s chances of survival (except perhaps when caught).”

    Cheating is not in one’s self interest. Cheating is stupid, end of story.

    If I cheat and get an engineering degree, and get hired on the basis of possessing knowledge I never learned, eventually someone somewhere will figure out that I am an incompetent fool. And that’s if I’m lucky. If I’m unlucky, I won’t get caught and then I’ll accidentally kill someone through a mishap that would not have happened if I had actually possessed the knowledge that my employer hired me for. Once I am found to be cheating, word goes around the engineering community. I am fired, and cannot find another job. I become ostracized in my field, and end up wastig years of my life over literally nothing. Telling people that cheating is in their self interest is like telling teenagers that having sex is in their self interest. It’s lots of fun now, but when you’re stuck with that “bundle of joy” believe me you’re going to wish you’d actually thought about what was really in your self interest before you indulged in that brief moment of self-gratification.

    Even if one is never caught (and believe me, the more you cheat, the bigger the lies, the more likely you are to get caught) you are still stuck living a lie, faking reality. If you look up Bernie Madoff, you’ll find in the interviews that he wished he was caught sooner. He was rich from his cheating, he was living the high life. But he was enjoying this money in constant fear, lying constantly to his family, friends and investors, unable to sleep at night worrying about being caught. His own son turned him in, and he is currently estranged from his children. Even if the “aha” moment had never happened for Madoff, he’d still be lying awake at night wondering about when it would come. I wouldn’t want to be Madoff before he was caught, and I wouldn’t want to be Madoff after he was caught. Money can bring us freedom and pleasure, but money dishonestly obtained is like that food in commercials on TV. It looks delicious, but after what the commerical people have done to it to make it look that way, nobody would want to eat it. Madoff is learning that now, and we should learn from his example.

    Lying, cheating and stealing are stupid. They can ruin your life and get people killed. How that is in anyone’s “self-interest,” I cannot imagine.


  3. d |

    I thought the article was pretty good,for a useless PhD,in Briannas words,see ,America is the Problem. Yes,Brianna,it is stupid,but obviously it is in the cheaters own,self interest. The reason being,it promotes them,and allows instant gratification,the thing this country is based on.Our fellow Americans,mostly want fast,instant and fulfilling,products,lives and above all things, to win. No,not everyone,but enough to give this story a huge chunk of truth. Cheating is rampant,and some never get caught,bluffing their way through life. Maybe, some are just smarter than others, and bluff better. Just because you could not get away with it,does not mean that it does not happen everyday. I just hope I don’t end up in the doctors office,who cheated his way thruogh medical school.Yikes.


  4. drjim |

    @Larry: I had the same feeling as you did about bouncing around. The complexity of the issue I think causes such conflict.

    The morally intact people do suffer because those who have distorted the moral culture need to demonize those who are honest in order to justify their immorality.

    BTW, I was right with you until you brought of welfare programs. Why do people need to politicize everything?


  5. drjim |

    @Brianna: “Cheating is not in one’s self interest. Cheating is stupid, end of story.” Self-interest and stupidity are not mutually exclusive categories.

    Once again, you go to extremes. Most people who cheat are not incompetent. Truly incompetent people likely realize that, even by cheating, they can’t get away with being seen as capable. In fact, most cheaters are likely quite competent people who happen to be lazy, dishonest, or possessing other morally limiting capabilities. So that engineer you mention who cheats is still probably a pretty good engineer, he/she just didn’t deserve to get where he/she got due to the cheating.

    As for your Madoff example, if people cheat, they probably possess some degree of sociopathy, which involves a lack of empathy, lack of concern for the consequences of their behavior, and, most importantly, a tremendous capacity to justify, rationalize, or just plain ignore the moral consequences of their behavior. Madoff may have said that he was tortured, but my guess is that he was able to live with himself just fine all these years. If he hadn’t, he would have turned himself in long ago.

    Cheating is like crime, if it didn’t pay, people wouldn’t do it!


  6. Dan Miller |

    Jim, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Bertrand Russell* spoke of self interest as follows:

    If men were actuated by self-interest, which they are not – except in the case of a few saints – the whole human race would cooperate. There would be no more wars, no more armies, no more navies, no more atom bombs. There would not be armies of propagandists employed in poisoning the minds of Nation A against Nation B, and reciprocally of Nation B against Nation A. There would not be armies of officials at frontiers to prevent the entry of foreign books and foreign ideas, however excellent in themselves. There would not be customs barriers to ensure the existence of many small enterprises where one big enterprise would be more economic. All this would happen very quickly if men desired their own happiness as ardently as they desired the misery of their neighbours. But, you will tell me, what is the use of these utopian dreams ? Moralists will see to it that we do not become wholly selfish, and until we do the millenium will be impossible.

    He was, obviously, talking about what he considered enlightened long term self interest rather than gratification of immediate desires.

    Cheating is sometimes conducive to short term self interest, but frequently counterproductive when long term self interest is considered. I agree that there is lots of cheating, and haven’t quite figured out why. Has something happened to make the concept of honor old fashioned? If so, it’s a big mistake.

    Many years ago, when I was a student at the University of Virginia School of Law, there was a university wide honor code, administered by the students without adult (faculty) supervision. There was only one punishment for lying, cheating or stealing and it was expulsion from the university. When one student caught another student lying, cheating or stealing, it was his obligation first to ask the offender to withdraw voluntarily from the university and should he refuse to do so to report the offense to the Honor Council. Failure to do so was itself a violation of the honor code, and the same penalty applied. Students from the law school were asked to serve as prosecution and defense counsel, and I had a case or two. The system worked quite well; I could leave my books and class notes, bicycle, or whatever, lying around with no fear that they would be disturbed. When exams were underway, the faculty member passed out the exams and generally left; there was no need for him to stick around and monitor to prevent cheating. If a fellow student said something purporting to be factual, I was able to assume that he was telling the truth as he saw it. Occasionally, there was a black bordered notice in the student newspaper that a student (unnamed) had withdrawn from the university.

    Looking at many of our “national leaders,” I get the sense that referring to a congressman as “The Honorable Gentleman from **” frequently dishonors the term “honorable.” Perhaps the term, which it seems is rarely used in other contexts, has lost all meaning. If so, it is very unfortunate.
    __________
    *Although he lived long enough to be referred to, properly I think, as a “very intelligent old silly,” he was one of the best writers I have encountered and I agree with lots of what he said. He was a man of the previous century, and his god father was John Stewart Mill. In this article written in April of last year, I pretended to to channel Lord Russell and Douglas Adams, two of my favorites. Since I was doing the channeling, both of them agreed with me, clearly demonstrating their superior intelligence.


  7. Brianna |

    “Cheating is like crime, if it didn’t pay, people wouldn’t do it!”

    And where do criminals go? To jail. So if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have committed those crimes in the first place.

    And even if you don’t get caught, why would you want to live a life where you have to lie to everyone you know? What part of that sounds like a happy, practical existence to you?

    “Yes,Brianna,it is stupid,but obviously it is in the cheaters own,self interest. The reason being,it promotes them,and allows instant gratification,the thing this country is based on.”

    Yes Doris, and that strategy is working out so well for our country right now. Can’t you see all around you how prosperous and wealthy America’s strategy of instant gratification and living for today is working for everybody in America? How could I have ever decided that such a strategy for living is foolish and impractical, when I see the benefits it brings to everyone who tries it.

    Just because the rest of the world has decided to act like idiots doesn’t mean I have to join them in their foolishness.

    “Maybe, some are just smarter than others, and bluff better. ”

    I still say that the really smart people are the ones who decide not to live a lie in the first place. Quite aside from any potential external consequences, nobody sane wants to live in a world where they must live in constant fear of getting caught out in their web of deception.


  8. larry ennis |

    dr.jim
    My mention of the welfare system was to underscore a situation that well illustrates the use of cheating in order to be rewarded. People are encouraged by the system to lie/cheat in order to receive a free benefit.
    Why is this so common?
    One reason is the political advantage of having a certain segment of the voters forever dependent on a particular party.
    Another reason is the number of bureaucrats that depend on the welfare system for their livelyhood.
    Cheating keeps the system forever growing.


  9. d |

    Not me,either,Brianna,but there are still hordes of folks who do cheat and who do live these lives built on lies. I don’t know how they do it,but,nontheless,they do,and some quite well,for a long time,Madoff,and lots of others,Enron,for example. You proved Dr. Jims’ point quite well,by including Madoff,who felt remorse,after being caught,but not so much before.


  10. Brianna |

    You think Enron and Madoff are practical Doris? OK, why don’t you buy a bunch of credit cards and just start using card A to pay off the minimum on card B? It’s a scam anyone can do, and if you’re smart about it, you can do it for about 2 years before you’re forced to declare bankruptcy. Then you can suffer the negative consequences of your actions for the next 20 years, just like Madoff and the guys from Enron.

    I challenge anyone who thinks lying practical to do as I suggest and live the high life. I challenge anyone who thinks cheating is practical to start doing it in their daily lives here, now, today. Try it, if you think it’s so smart, and see where it gets you.

    For the record, I am not going to argue this anymore.


  11. drjim |

    @Dan: I agree with you on points. And I really appreciated your Russell quote. As you suggest, he was speaking about a very different form of self-interest than I.

    @Brianna: You’ve said your final piece and now I’ll say mine.

    Again, you go to extremes; few people are going to cheat like Enron or Madoff.

    I must say that you are not engaging in rational thought here. Try this logic from a prospective cheater:

    “I don’t want to work that hard to succeed.”

    “The chances of getting caught are low.”

    “Ergo, I will cheat to get ahead.”

    Please understand that I don’t in any way support or rationalize cheating. I was just trying understand it because it is so widespread.

    ‘Nuff said!


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