Every so often a news story comes out about a celebrity caught shoplifting. The standard response is “Why?” The reason isn’t lack of money, and it’s certainly not that getting arrested is good for the celeb's career, so what would make an A-lister take the chance?
New research suggests that, for some people, stealing or cheating has much in common with doing a line of cocaine – it’s all about the buzz. Psychologists call it the "Cheater’s High."
Researchers from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington conducted three experiments to test the theory. The first used a cash reward as the carrot for solving word puzzles. The researchers set up the experiment in such a way that participants had a chance to illicitly get a look at the correct answers, with the expectation that many of them would use the answers to cheat on the test. As predicted, more than 40% of the participants cheated. After the test, participants were asked to report on their emotions. Researchers found that the cheaters consistently reported a bigger boost in positive emotion (such as a sense of “self-satisfaction”) compared to those who didn’t cheat.
In a follow-up study, the research team removed the financial-reward factor (which by itself could spark positive emotions) and asked a different group of participants to solve a series of math problems on a computer. Once again, the test was set up so that participants could—if they chose—get a peek at the answers. This time almost 70% of participants cheated, and once again they reported higher levels of positive emotion than the non-cheaters, despite not winning any money.
In the final study, the research team used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey site to recruit 205 people online and offered them a chance to win cash for solving word puzzles. The researchers sent a portion of the participants a message that they were on the “honor system” when reporting their answers because the researchers wouldn’t be able to tell if they were cheating (in truth, they actually could tell). The purpose of the message was to remove the possibility that cheaters weren’t aware that they were cheating, or that they might “play dumb” about having cheated. The message also implied that if the participants chose to cheat, they were in effect stealing the money.
The results in this case were even more significant: not only did the cheaters report more positive emotion than non-cheaters, but the cheaters who received the warning message reported even greater self-satisfaction than cheaters who didn’t get the message.
The research team’s takeaway from all three experiments is that the cheaters high is sparked by the thrill of getting away with it. The final experiment showed this most clearly, because the plain face truth that participants were knowingly cheating actually increased their “high.”
Since this study only focused on cheating and stealing, it's not clear that the same dynamic plays out in cases where someone directly harms another person, which would of course be hard to test for obvious reasons.
The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.