Your Cheating Heart

Cheating – acting in a dishonest manner to gain advantage - is surprisingly commonplace and may be on the increase. Consider the high profile case of Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong who eventually admitted to using performance enhancing drugs and was accordingly stripped of his titles.

But still we risk it. An investigation in Scotland showed that more than 100 pupils in recent years had their exam papers cancelled after being caught using mobile phones. Cheating does not go down well!

Research is being carried out to understand cheating. Why do we do it? Scientists have discovered that creativity, fear of loss and observing dishonest behaviour in others can provide people with the motivation to cheat. Personal gain is an obvious factor too. It would appear that when the “right” circumstances present themselves, humans are surprisingly quick to cheat.

In a study completed in 2008 by Dan Ariely of Duke University, he and his colleagues explained what happened when they asked students to solve maths puzzles in exchange for cash rewards. When the conditions were changed in such a way that the students assumed that the examiner was not able to detect cheating, then the scores increased significantly. It was determined that the scores were not inflated by a few students cheating but by many students cheating slightly.

Are our brains supportive of cheating?

In 2011, Ariely reported a correlation between creativity and being more inclined to being dishonest. Why? Both creativity and deception are produced by the neocortex. There is a further reason for the correlation: creative people invent more ways of rationalisingwhy their cheating is ok. Lying to ourselves is a way of coping with the guilt.

Ariely claims that self image is an important factor in reducing cheating. People are less likely to cheat if it makes them feel bad. Why should we care? No animal is known to feel a sense of guilt. It is part of the mystery of being human that we not only are conscious beings but that we have conscience. We know the difference between right and wrong. And it matters to us. Therein lies the mystery. It is explored in programme three of the series.

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