The Psychology of Cheating

Paradoxically, it’s often an obsession with fairness that leads people to begin cutting corners in the first place.

“Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness,” said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the use of prescription drugs to improve intellectual performance. “Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you’re not cheating, you’re restoring fairness.”

… people subconsciously seek shortcuts more than they realize — and make a deliberate decision when they begin to cheat in earnest.

… Low-level cheating may be natural and even productive in some situations; the brain naturally seeks useful shortcuts. But most people tend to follow rules they accept as fair, even when they have the opportunity and a strong incentive to break them.

In short, the move from small infractions to a deliberate pattern of deception or fraud is less an incremental slide than a deliberate strategy. And in most people it takes shape for personal, and often very emotional, reasons, psychologists say.

One of the most obvious of these is resentment of an authority or a specific rule. The evidence of this is easy enough to see in everyday life, with people flouting laws about cellphone use, smoking, the wearing of helmets. In studies of workplace behavior, psychologists have found that in situations where bosses are abusive, many employees withhold the unpaid extras that help an organization, like being courteous to customers or helping co-workers with problems.

Yet perhaps the most powerful urge to cheat stems from a deep sense of unfairness, psychologists say. As people first begin to compete and compare themselves with others, as early as middle school, they also begin to learn of others’ hidden advantages. Private tutors. Family money. Alumni connections. A regular golf game with the boss. Against a competitor with such advantages, taking credit for other people’s work at the office is not only easier, it can seem only fair.

Once the cheating starts, it’s natural to impute it to others… A corner cutter often begins to think everyone else is cheating after he has started cheating, not before…

In the winner-take-all environment that characterizes many competitive fields, cheating feels like a hedge against that most degrading sensation: being a chump. The fear of finishing out of the money and hearing someone say, “Wait, you mean to tell me you could have and you didn’t?” Psychologists argue that the sensation of being duped — anger, self-blame, bitterness — is such a singular cocktail that it forces an uncomfortable kind of self-awareness.

via The Psychology of Cheating –

In a country like ours, where the top 1% are grabbing an ever greater share of income and wealth, it looks like we can expect more and more cheating. “GE didn’t pay any taxes, why should I?”

Jay Fishman, chairman and chief executive of The Travelers Cos. (TRV) is provided a dedicated “company car and driver” to tool around the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota, and beyond. His “total incremental cost for personal use of a Company car and driver and other ground transportation” amounted to a $82,618 in 2010, according to the proxy Travelers filed last week. (Around the world with Travelers, Nasdaq & more…, footnoted*, 4/18/2011)

When people hear about these and many many other corporate abuses, they starting thinking they must be a chump if they’re not cheating.

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