People who get away with cheating or lying—or who gain by another person’s lie—don’t feel bad about their behavior. In fact, they feel pretty good, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Similar such effects have been called the “duping delight” or the thrill of “forbidden fruit.” The authors of this study called it the “cheater’s high.”
“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 Nicole Ruedy of the University of Washington, lead author of the study. “Our study reveals people actually may experience a ‘cheater’s high’ after doing something unethical that doesn’t directly harm someone else.”
Researchers conducted six experiments that involved more than 1,000 people. All those taking part in the study were in their 20s and early 30s. Some experiments took place in the U.S., some in England.
The first two experiments essentially established that people believe that unethical behavior, by themselves or others, will cause shame, guilt and other negative feelings. But being honest will lead to positive feelings, they predicted.
The next four experiments gave people the opportunity to behave unethically in several ways. In one case, people were given the opportunity to cheat on a test. Another experiment allowed them to record more hours than they actually worked in order to receive a bonus.
One experiment gave only some of the participants the ability to cheat, whereas their peers could not. And in another case, an actor playing the role of a tester boosted some people’s scores on a test—with the person’s full knowledge.
Despite their loftier self-expectations, many of the people involved in the experiments did not feel bad after cheating. In fact, those who got away with it actually felt better, on average, than did those who behaved honestly.
The findings held true even when lying or cheating offered no real reward, as well as in situations where researchers admonished participants more than once to be truthful and honest.
The authors theorized that the “cheater’s high” is related to the thrill of getting away with something, no matter how small the reward.
“These findings challenge existing models of ethical decision making and offer cause for concern,” the authors wrote. “Many ethical decisions are made privately and are difficult to monitor.”
People who find they get both a material and psychological reward for unethical behavior may decide to try it again. And again.
“It’s important that we understand how our moral behavior influences our emotions,” said Ruedy. “Future research should examine whether this ‘cheater’s high’ could motivate people to repeat the unethical behavior.”