“Cheater’s high” can be a more powerful force than gain or guilt

An early-stage scholar like Nicole Ruedy acclimates quickly to the sometimes glacial pace of academic publishing.

So she was positively astonished by the wildfire velocity of the mainstream media when they caught wind of her unpublished study identifying the existence of a “cheater’s high.”

Ruedy is a post-doctorate research associate at the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. As she prepared to present the paper at the August annual meeting of the Academy of Management, an enterprising press agent for the Academy picked her work to promote the event.

It touched a nerve.

Forbes bit first, followed by the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the Economist, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Financial Times. For a few weeks, the cheater’s high was the talk of newspapers, blogs, and morning news chat shows.

“It was really exciting,” Ruedy says. “It forced me to think about the work in a different way, but I found it really rewarding. We do these studies and write for journals and wonder if it will actually filter down to people outside of academia. In this case, the connection was direct.”

Accidental study

Like many discoveries, Ruedy’s owes much to serendipity. She and her doctoral advisor at the Wharton School were conducting a study on the influence of power on unethical behavior. The experiments yielded no insights. But the data did reveal an odd pattern.

As a precaution, Ruedy had asked each subject to report his or her mood, using standard affect items at the end of the study, to check that that power manipulation had not inadvertently impacted mood as well. “As I looked at this affect data, I noticed how much happier the cheaters were than the non-cheaters,” Ruedy says. “There was this huge boost of positivity and we didn’t understand why.”

Existing theory held that people should experience grief or anxiety after committing an ethical breach, not joy.

So Ruedy decided to design a new study to investigate this mood boost she observed in people who had just perpetrated fraud.

Six experiments confirmed the feeling. The first established that participants predicted they would feel guilty if they cheated. But put to the test, not only did cheaters feel an absence of guilt, they felt… good. Cheaters were happier than non-cheaters and felt smarter and more accomplished.

Subjects also reported positive feelings when someone else cheated on their behalf, demonstrating a kind of “contact high,” as Forbes put it.

Further questions

Some of the media coverage has extrapolated the paper’s findings to explain incidences of rule breaking writ large. Think the billions lost on reckless bets by JPMorgan’s “London Whale” or Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion fleecing of investors.

But Ruedy’s study focused on low-stakes cheating. In one of the experiments, for instance, subjects were given the opportunity to falsify the results of simple word tasks in order to “earn” an extra few dimes or dollars. Seemingly victimless crimes of minimal profit.

“Our documented pattern of results helps to explain otherwise puzzling unethical behavior,” Ruedy says, “such as the finding that people often cheat even for trivial sums of money and that cheating behaviors are fairly insensitive to the economic costs and benefits of cheating.”

In other words (and to paraphrase the Telegraph), the cheater’s high is a more powerful force than guilt or gain.

Ruedy believes that the cause of this elation is a feeling of cleverness, of confidence, of control that results from having pulled something off, worked around the system. But she emphasizes that there’s much more to learn before confirming these and other theories. So the next step is to extend this strain of research to document the causes of the cheater’s high and its boundary conditions.

“Do our initial findings explain why Bernie Madoff did it? That’s just speculation,” Ruedy says. “We don’t know if falsifying a test score is the same as running a Ponzi scheme worth billions of dollars. But did he feel clever? Successful? In control? The same mechanisms could well be operating in a situation like Madoff.”

The case for reflection

Ruedy has a background in judgment and decision making. She’s especially interested in decisions that shape our identities—who we are, who we think we are, what we’re willing to do, how much we can change. Ethics are a major factor in that equation. And ethical decisions are not easy to make, for many reasons.

“It’s worth looking into the common ethical pitfalls that people fall into. Where are we systematically falling down?” she says. “If not, we’re just coming up with excuses for not being the people we want to be. And society would work much better if we all were the people we want to be.”

Her advice toward that end? Proactive reflection.

“We know now that cheating can feel pretty good, at least in the short term. We don’t yet know about the long term,” Ruedy says. “But our findings should serve as a warning to think about the long-term effect of ethical decisions, reflect on what they mean to your concept of self. In those moments, try to be a bit more introspective.”

“The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior” is the work of Nicole Ruedy of the University of Washington Foster School of Business, Celia Moore of the London Business School, Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School, and Maurice E. Schweitzer of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.