University of Southern California

Cheating When It's One For Me, One For You
August 18, 2011
Category: 
Strategy

Turn on the local news or scan the pages of the Wall Street Journal and you're sure to see a story about unethical behavior in business or government. In many cases—whether Enron-level fraud or a falsified resume—someone got caught breaking the rules for personal gain. So why take the risk? "Cheating is often a selfish act," says USC Marshall Professor, Scott Wiltermuth. "We cheat to get ahead. We cheat to obtain things we could not obtain by playing by the rules. We cheat because we think others are cheating and we do not want to lose out on our share."

But what if we're not the only ones who benefit from our dishonesty? An athlete who takes performance-enhancing steroids, for instance, helps the entire team; a student who disseminates a stolen answer key, meanwhile, helps fellow students cheat on a test.

To discover how this "positive" side effect influences a person's decision to cheat—or not to cheat, Professor Wiltermuth conducted studies to answer questions like:

  • Will a Ponzi scheme seem more ethical if proceeds are shared with a partner, rather than hoarded?
  • Are people more likely to cheat for monetary gain if the spoils are split with others?
  • Does the equal division of ill-gotten gains increase the frequency of unethical behavior?
  • Will cheating frequency decrease if benefits are shared with someone of dubious morality?

In one of the experiments, for example, 262 participants were told they would be paid $3 for participating in the study, but could earn additional money by unscrambling word jumbles. There was a catch, though: "If you successfully unscramble the first three word jumbles but not the fourth," read the instructions, "you will be paid only for the first three - even if you also successfully unscramble the fifth, sixth, and seventh word jumbles." Participants weren't required to present the unscrambled words; they needed only to report successful completion. And their incentive to cheat was the third jumble's obscure solution - taguan - followed by a number of easily solved puzzles.

The researcher divided participants into five groups that received varying dollar amounts for each report of a correct solution. Some were allowed to assign a bonus $1 to a friend or a randomly-assigned stranger. While participants explicitly stated that they would prefer that they (rather than their friend) receive the additional dollar per word jumble solved, their actual behavior revealed that they were more willing to cheat when the additional dollar went to a friend or even someone they did not know and would never meet.

After analyzing the complete data, Professor Wiltermuth came to two key conclusions:

  • People are more likely to engage in unethical behavior if others also benefit from their misdeeds. "When individuals stand to gain all of the rewards of their dishonesty," he notes, "their own need to see themselves as moral may stop them from behaving unethically."
  • It doesn't matter if the cheater has a personal relationship with others who benefit. "Cheating rates increased when another beneficiary shared in the benefits, even when that beneficiary was a randomly-selected participant from another experiment."

The Bottom Line: When we share the rewards with others, we feel less guilty about cheating—and do it more often.

The research, titled "Cheating More when the Spoils are Split", was published in the July 2011 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 115 (2), 157-168. Learn more about Professor Scott Wiltermuth and his research on interpersonal dynamics here.