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Cheaters Get a High from being Dishonest, Study Finds

Update Date: Sep 06, 2013 12:25 PM EDT

Once a cheater, always a cheater. This idiom is repeated quite frequently in movies and in everyday life. The concept of cheating and why people resort to it has been studied a lot by researchers. In order to understand personality and human decisions, researchers have looked into how families fall apart over dishonesty or why people stay with cheaters. In a new study, researchers focused on the cheaters in the attempt to explain why people cheat more than once. This study suggests that there is a certain high that cheaters get, whether it is cheating on a test or cheating on another person.  

For this study, the researchers recruited over 1,000 adults living in the United States and England. A little bit over 50 percent of the participants were males. Around 400 of them were in their late 20s or 30s while the rest of the participants were still in college. The researchers administered several experiments to find data on cheating and why people do it. They discovered that even though people did not get any reward for cheating, they generally felt happier than people who did not cheat at all.

"When people do something wrong specifically to harm someone else, such as apply an electrical shock, the consistent reaction in previous research has been that they feel bad about their behavior," said the study's lead author, Nicole E. Ruedy, of the University of Washington reported by Medical Xpress. "Our study reveals people actually may experience a 'cheater's high' after doing something unethical that doesn't directly harm someone else."

In one of the experiments, the researchers divided the participants into two groups. Each group had to answer math and logic questions. In one group, answering the question automatically allowed them to move on to the next question. In the other group, the participants had the opportunity to click on a button that would reveal the answer. The participants were discouraged to look at the answer, which would be considered cheating, and encouraged to solve the problem on their own. The researchers found that 68 percent of the people in the second group had cheated and they reported feeling happier after the experiment than people who did not click on the button.

"The good feeling some people get when they cheat may be one reason people are unethical even when the payoff is small," Ruedy said. "It's important that we understand how our moral behavior influences our emotions. Future research should examine whether this 'cheater's high' could motivate people to repeat the unethical behavior."

In another one of the experiments, researchers discovered that when people benefited from other people's misdeeds, they felt more upbeat than people who did not benefit. The researchers also found from another one of their trials that people still felt happier after cheating even though they were told at the very beginning that cheating would disvalue their work and make them unreliable. The researchers concluded that people who cheated even though they did not have any huge gains might have done so just for the momentary high.

The study was published by the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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