Why Do We Cheat?

Drs. Norbert Herzog & David Niesel

Drs. Norbert Herzog & David Niesel

Medical Discovery News

Even a child can explain why cheating is wrong. Students are well-warned about the consequences that ensue, and adults know the legal implications. Yet cases of cheating continue to emerge in classrooms, boardrooms and newsrooms. People cheat on tests, for sports and in elections. Why? Microbiologists Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall attempted to answer this question by exploring the causes of cheating and why people deceive to get ahead.

Cheating is not unique to any area of society. Seventy-five percent of university students surveyed had cheated, one-third of scientists surveyed admitted to irregularities in their research practices, and an estimated 1.6 million Americans cheat on their taxes. Cheating isn’t even exclusive to humans — even single-celled organisms can “steal” products made by others.

The size of a particular part of the brain called the neocortex is directly related to an animal’s intelligence. It is also responsible for conscious thought and language. Additionally, the size of the neocortex is predictive of the degree that animals engage in deception. The more intelligent the animal, the more it exhibits deceptive behavior.

When it comes to motivation, dread seems to be more powerful than reward, making it a strong impetus for cheating. The fear of losing something, such as money, status or even a game, is a well-defined motivator. Additionally, observing others cheat increases this behavior. Cheating can be contagious; the more that people observe this behavior, the more often it occurs. It is also enhanced when circumstances make it easy for people to engage in cheating. Ultimately, it is the real or perceived benefits from cheating that can motivate people.

There is some research that indicates that the more creative a person is, the more likely they are to cheat. This may stem from the ability of creative people to be better at self-deception and the ability to rationalize the behavior.

There are many deleterious effects of cheating. It wastes resources that could have been used more productively. It can inhibit the progress of others trying to repeat or build upon fraudulent work. It is essentially stealing from others.

Research shows that harsh penalties do not reduce instances of cheating. The answer to controlling this behavior is through educating people of the consequences and reinforcing personal barriers, such as morality, ethics and conscience, that emphasize the cost of cheating and its damaging effects. Controlling cheating early helps prevent spreading of this serious behavior.

While it’s impossible to prevent every instance of cheating, such research helps to understand the basis for the behavior, which in turn can allow society to change the way it deals with such infractions. Hopefully, knowledge of why we cheat will allow us to limit our inclination toward such weaknesses and ultimately its toll on all of us.

Medical Discovery News is a weekly radio and print broadcast highlighting medical and scientific breakthroughs hosted by professor emeritus Norbert Herzog and professor David Niesel, biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.

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