Most of us would hopefully not consider cheating, particularly in serious situations. The feeling of guilt would overcome us. Or would it? New research suggests that cheaters are more likely to feel upbeat than remorseful following a dishonest deed.
Researchers from the University of Washington, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and London Business School conducted a study that analyzed people's emotions following the act of an "unethical" deed.
The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved more than 1,000 participants from England and the US. Around 400 were from the general public aged between late 20s and early 30s, while the remaining participants were in their 20s and attending university.
The participants were required to carry out a series of six experiments, which involved a variety of tests and puzzles. Before and after all experiments, the subjects were asked to complete questionnaires regarding their emotions.
'Cheater's high' after dishonest behavior
The study revealed that those who cheated on the test were happy rather than remorseful.
In one experiment, the participants were divided into two groups to carry out a computer-based math and logic test.
The participants from one group were asked to work out the answer to the question. Once completed, they were moved on to the next question. In the other group, participants were asked to calculate the answer to the questions, but they could also click on a button that would give them the correct answer.
Results showed that 68% of the participants used the answer button, which the researchers counted as cheating. However, those who cheated portrayed emotions of happiness following the test rather than remorse.
Nicole Ruedy of the University of Washington and lead author of the study says:
"When people do something wrong specifically to harm someone else, such as apply an electrical shock, the consistent reaction in previous research has been that they feel bad about their behavior.
Our study reveals people actually may experience a 'cheater's high' after doing something unethical that doesn't directly harm someone else."
In another experiment, researchers observed two groups of people who were asked to solve math puzzles in a room with a person pretending to be a participant.
The researchers told the real participants that they would be paid for every puzzle they solved within a certain time limit, while the acting participant would grade the tests when their time was up. In one group, the actor falsely increased the participants' scores, while the actor of the other group scored them accurately.
None of the participants who had their score increased reported the lie and felt better on average, compared with those who had accurate scores.
"The good feeling some people get when they cheat may be one reason people are unethical even when the payoff is small," says Ruedy.
"It's important that we understand how our moral behavior influences our emotions. Future research should examine whether this 'cheater's high' could motivate people to repeat the unethical behavior."