The psychology of cheating: ‘Everyone does it, and I’d be an idiot not to do it’ | world | Hindustan Times
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The psychology of cheating: ‘Everyone does it, and I’d be an idiot not to do it’

world Updated: Apr 18, 2011 22:33 IST
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To some it was a fitting end to a pointless witch hunt. After weeks of graphic testimony about steroid use, a jury in San Francisco has cleared former baseball slugger Barry Bonds of all charges but one — obstruction of justice. And even that might not hold.

But for those who feel most strongly about cheating, the verdict was more like a kick in the stomach. Flouting the rules is, for them, not only morally wrong but a lasting offence. If guilty, offenders should pay, whether they're rich or poor, malingerers or masters of the universe — like the financial figures central to the economic collapse of 2008.

The sentiment runs particularly high now at tax time, when almost everyone thinks that he's paying too much while others cheat.

Yet paradoxically, it's often an obsession with fairness that leads people to begin cutting corners in the first place. "Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness," said Dr Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the use of prescription drugs to improve intellectual performance. "Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you're not cheating, you're restoring fairness."

The boilerplate tale of a good soul gone wrong is well known. It begins with small infractions - illegally downloading a few songs, skimming small amounts from the register, lies of omission on taxes - and grows by increments. The experiment becomes a hobby that becomes a way of life.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, Bernard Madoff said his Ponzi scheme grew from an investment advisory business that he began as a sideline for certain clients.

Once the cheating starts, it's natural to impute it to others. "When it comes to negative characteristics, we tend to overestimate how much others have in common with us," said David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University. That is to say: a corner cutter often begins to think everyone else is cheating after he has started cheating, not before. It’s as though people cheat without being aware of it.

Finally, in the winner-take-all environment that characterizes many competitive fields, cheating feels like a hedge against that most degrading sensation: being a chump. The fear of finishing out of the money and hearing someone say, “Wait, you mean to tell me you could have and you didn't?”

It happens everyday to people who resist cheating. Nothing fair about it. NYT