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Cheater's high: Why not playing fair feels so good

By Maia Szalavitz, TIME.com
September 10, 2013 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
Rising social inequality has enhanced the rewards that come with taking every opportunity to benefit.
Rising social inequality has enhanced the rewards that come with taking every opportunity to benefit.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Study shows people get an instant mood lift when they cheat
  • Thrill of cheating my be short-lived though, as most feel regret later
  • Incentives to get ahead by cheating are higher than they've been before

(TIME.com) -- We like it when we get away with cheating — and not just in relationships.

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.

It turns out, however, that all of us may get a little boost when we cheat, and researchers showed for the first time that, although people think they'll feel guilty after doing something dishonest or unethical, they actually enjoy a lift in mood instead.

"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."

Why the difference? Ruedy and her colleagues only studied the immediate effects of cheating, so it's possible that the thrill of cheating is short-lived, and that many cheaters do later feel regret. There's also the fact that socially, it's not acceptable to admit to feeling good about intentionally bending the rules to your own benefit.

"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."

TIME.com: Why the rich are less ethical

In the research, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ruedy and her team presented participants with opportunities to cheat on word games or puzzles claimed to be intelligence tests, in some cases offering monetary rewards for being dishonest. Quite a few of the volunteers took the bait — up to half cheated in some of the experiments — and in all but one of the set-ups, the cheaters said they felt better afterward than those who played fair.

"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,'" Callahan suggests. "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."

And that high can even be shared, albeit vicariously; even people who didn't cheat but were randomly assigned a partner who cheated in a way that helped both of them were thrilled by the deception.

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," says Callahan.

Rising social inequality has enhanced the rewards that come with taking every opportunity to benefit, even if it comes at the expense of others and requires unethical actions. The relatively painless consequences of not playing fair may also play a role.

"There's lax enforcement in lot of key areas. The watchdogs are sleeping and in some cases, they've been put to sleep," says Calllahan.

But Ruedy's work suggests another reason — the good mood induced by cheating — and even the good mood that comes with collaborating with someone who cheated, could prompt more cheating behavior, fueling a vicious cycle of increasing dishonesty.

"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," says Callahan.

TIME.com: How money makes you lie and cheat

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.

This story originally published on TIME.com

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