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Research Shows That Cheaters Get a "Cheater's High"

Do you ever wonder why people cheat—or feel tempted to cheat—on expense reports, taxes, exams, and other endeavors? According to a series of 2012 research studies at four major universities, cheating often provides psychological rewards that motivate people to act unethically. Cheating can even give many people what researchers have labeled a "cheater's high."

In one experiment, researchers from the University of Washington's Foster School of Business asked subjects to predict how they'd feel about cheating. As the researchers had expected, most of the subjects predicted they'd feel bad about cheating. Then they conducted an experiment in which 179 subjects had to unscramble as many words as possible in a 15 minute period, earning money for each word completed. When the subjects were offered a chance to cheat, 41 percent of the participants did so. Right after the test, the participants took a test that measured how good they felt at the moment. Surprisingly, "[The] cheaters reported higher positive feelings [than the non-cheaters] (such as excitement) and no difference in negative feelings (such as guilt) than non-cheaters."

A second study with 205 participants revealed even more disturbing results. Once again, the participants were given a test that allowed the chance to cheat. And once again, the cheaters felt better than the non-cheaters. But this time the cheaters also rated themselves higher on how often they felt "clever, capable, accomplished, satisfied, and superior." In other words, they not only felt good about cheating; they also felt smug about it.

An article in Forbes magazine concluded, "[We can] add this [study] to the pantheon of research undermining the idea that humans are good at heart …. And we wonder why Wall Street investment banks, stocked with the smartest minds from Ivy League schools, all plunged lemming-like off the same cliff in the credit crisis?"

Possible Preaching Angles: The Power of Sin/Temptation—The Bible is honest about "the passing pleasures of sin." Sin often entraps us and becomes habitual because it feels good. It makes sense to our "flesh."

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