Swiping office supplies from work. Jumping the turnstile to get a free ride on the subway. Stealing a car and taking it for a joyride. All of these are clearly unethical behaviors that should evoke a negative emotional response after the event — if the mere promise of feeling guilt or remorse doesn’t stop the individual from doing it in the first place.
That’s the conventional wisdom based on current psychological research. But Wharton professor Maurice E. Schweitzer found quite the opposite in a recent research study. He says that unethical behavior not only can leave no negative emotional reaction but also can, in fact, trigger positive feelings.
Schweitzer, along with co-authors Nicole E. Ruedy at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, Celia Moore at the London Business School and Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School, discuss this result in “The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior,” to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Previous research that has looked at how people feel after they engage in unethical behavior “has focused on acts that harm a salient victim,” Schweitzer says, citing studies of perpetrators of violent crimes specifically. Schweitzer’s paper looks at moral acts that are less focused on harming an identifiable individual — think insurance fraud or workplace theft.
“Many people who would download music or software illegally would never steal $5 from someone’s pocket. Since they don’t see the person who is getting hurt by illegal downloads, there is psychological distance.”–Maurice Schweitzer
“In most of these cases, the harm is diffuse. You don’t know who is getting harmed,” Schweitzer says. “Many people who would download music or software illegally would never steal $5 from someone’s pocket. Since they don’t see the person who is getting hurt by illegal downloads, there is psychological distance. The psychological discomfort of stealing is not immediate.”
Gaming the System
To test their hypothesis, Schweitzer and his colleagues devised a series of six experiments to investigate reactions to unethical behavior. The first two asked individuals to predict how they would behave if they felt they acted unethically in certain circumstances — in this case, cheating in an experiment and lying on a timesheet. In both cases, participants predicted negative emotions to arise from such behavior.
To rule out self-selection — in other words, to eliminate the possibility that people who decided to behave dishonestly were already aware of the forthcoming cheater’s high — Schweitzer and his colleagues devised ways to measure the feelings generated by unethical behavior without giving the participant the chance to choose his or her fate. The subsequent experiments more clearly showed the cheater’s high that the researchers predicted.
In one experiment, study participants were paired with a confederate – a paid research assistant who pretends to be one of the participants. Each real participant was randomly assigned one of two conditions, cheating or not cheating. The participants and the confederates completed a series of mathematical problem solving tasks, with the number of correct answers tied to a joint monetary payout. The two then graded each other’s work and, in each other’s presence, reported their scores to a moderator.
In the groups assigned to be cheaters, the confederate over-reported how well the participant did on the task, thereby ensuring a larger-than-deserved payout. “I thought one or two people would correct the lying confederate. No one did,” Schweitzer notes.
A subsequent experiment removed the financial rewards from the equation. In one experiment, participants were randomly given the opportunity to cheat on a computerized intelligence test, despite straightforward on-screen prompts asking them not to do so. More than two-thirds of the participants — 68% — took the opportunity to cheat at least once in the 20-question math and logic test.
The findings demonstrate that “cheating triggers an emotional ‘high’ independent of its associated financial rewards,” the researchers write. “Differences in affect are driven by a positive affect boost in cheaters, rather than by affective reactions for those who choose not to cheat when they have the opportunity…. These results indicate that the cheater’s high is not driven by a sense of relief after not getting caught cheating.”
More than two-thirds of the participants — 68% — took the opportunity to cheat at least once in the 20-question math and logic test.
Understanding the psychology behind unethical behavior can help businesses that are trying to prevent it, both from within the company and by external forces. Part of the cheater’s high comes from a sense of accomplishment when an elaborate system is defeated, Schweitzer notes.
“It suggests that greater monitoring might not work,” he says. “Control systems to ensure people are working the correct number of hours, or doing the work they’re supposed to do instead of surfing the Internet – these may have the reverse effect. People perceive them as a challenge to overcome. Those who hack the iPhone or create elaborate hacking software to attack websites find a challenge in it. People may perceive it like a game.”
Aim for Amnesty
An elaborate system to prevent employee theft, for example, sets an expectation that employees are going to steal supplies. On the other hand, Schweitzer notes that companies that have offered amnesty programs allowing employees to return tools or equipment have reaped the rewards.
“They returned truckloads of tools back to the company,” Schweitzer says, describing the case of a specific firm that employed this tactic. “The company wasn’t trying harder and harder to prevent theft.… To reduce cheating, I would change the culture, communicate your expectations and acknowledge that you’re trusting people to do the right thing. These actions may curtail cheating.”
“To reduce cheating, I would change the culture, communicate your expectations and acknowledge that you’re trusting people to do the right thing.” –Maurice Schweitzer
In the paper, Schweitzer and his co-authors discuss another implication of their research — helping to explain “puzzling findings” about low-stakes unethical behavior. “The emotional boost conferred by cheating may be one reason people are motivated to cheat even when the financial payoff is small,” they write.
The next step for the group’s research is still under consideration. Schweitzer says he and Ruedy have discussed adding a component about mindfulness to their work, investigating how emotions might influence ethical behavior.
But the group’s research has, for now, settled one matter: The promise of a negative reaction doesn’t stop people from the thrill of a good cheat. “I think we often presume that guilt and remorse are going to hold people back,” Schweitzer says. “As humans, I really think we’re quite good at justifying our own behavior and putting it out of our mind in a way that makes guilt and remorse poor disincentives.”