Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why Do People Cheat?

In the world of psycho journalism two names stand out: Jonah Lehrer of the Wall Street Journal and Benedict Carey of the New York Times.

When I talk about psycho journalism I am referring to articles reporting the latest research in cognitive psychology.

Yesterday, I posted about Lehrer’s recent article on how the mind makes decisions. Today it’s Carey’s turn, for an excellent piece about why people cheat. Link here.

Studying cheaters contains its own difficulties. Why would you assume that cheaters are telling the truth about their motives? How do you know that they are not cheating on the tests or surveys or interviews you perform?

As it happens, cheaters do not to see themselves as cheaters. They see themselves as victims of injustice or unfairness. By cheating they are leveling the playing field.

Neurologist Dr. Anjan Chatterjee takes up this point, with a twist. He says: “Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness. Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you’re not cheating, you’re restoring fairness.”

Dr. Chatterjee is suggesting that some cheaters rationalize their behavior by casting themselves as victims. The more you feel that the game is rigged the less you feel that you need to play by the rules.

As Carey notes, you may end up feeling that only chumps play by the rules. If you think that the rules are not the rules, and that everyone else is playing by a different set of rules, you might cheat in order to feel just like everyone else. In your mind this does not make you a bad person.

When politicians try to persuade people that all of life’s inequalities are proof of social injustice they are casting large numbers of people as victims of unfairness.

If so, they are encouraging them to cheat.

As everyone knows, and as the old saying goes, life isn’t fair. Some people have advantages over others. Some children have parents who place more value on education or on football. Some children have parents who spend more time tutoring them. Some children have parents who can hire better tutors or send the children to tennis camp. And some children are naturally more athletic or are born with higher IQs or greater musical aptitude.

Success and failure in life usually has something to do with the advantages and disadvantages you have. Often these advantages have not been earned. Sometimes they have been earned, but not by the beneficiary.

No two people really start in the same place. If that is your definition of justice, then you are in the business of creating grievances. And grievances are a great excuse for cheating.

This does not obviate the fact that some games really are rigged, that some people are treated unfairly, and that some bosses are abusive.

Then, it makes sense that people try to bend the rules, but the situations Carey describes do not seem to me to be cheating.

In his words: “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.”

If a boss treats his staff badly, they are more likely to work less, to feel less motivated, to do the minimum required. To my mind this is not the same as stealing money from the cash drawer or lying about one’s time or arrival or departure.

Similarly, when people feel that the tax code is unfair, they sometimes decide to work less. They are not cheating, but making a rational decision.

Working less because it is not worth the effort is not the same thing as cheating on your taxes.

Explanations have their utility, but no one is trying to rationalize bad behavior. When you come down to it, cheaters have bad character.

But how does bad character develop?

Carey explains that it is not a slippery-slope. Their movement to the dark side begins with “small infractions” but eventually leads to a decision to self-identify as a cheat.

In Carey’s words: “The boilerplate tale of a good soul gone wrong is well known. It begins with small infractions — illegally downloading a few songs, skimming small amounts from the register, lies of omission on taxes — and grows by increments. The experiment becomes a hobby that becomes a way of life.

“This slippery-slope story obscures the process of moving to the dark side; namely, that people subconsciously seek shortcuts more than they realize — and make a deliberate decision when they begin to cheat in earnest.”

Carey is describing a journey. A moral individual cuts a corner or two at first, but finally ends up selling his soul. He identifies himself as a cheater, an immoral individual.

Why should this be so? Perhaps he reaches a tipping point, where the preponderance of his cheating behavior makes it impossible for him to cling to the illusion that he is an honest man.

Carey also reports that the best way to discourage cheating is to be clear about the rules and to hold people accountable for following them.

Business executives would do well to heed this advice. Your staff functions best when they know what is required of them, when they understand your policies and mission, when they know what the rules are, and when they know that they will be held accountable for their failures.

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