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On the Allure of Cheating

The thrill of eluding detection

Recently, my 15-year-old son and a group of his friends went out together for dinner and a movie. The movie they chose to see was an R-rated comedy, a fact that only struck them when they approached the ticket office and realized they would not be allowed to see the movie. Not to be deterred, they did what has almost become a rite of passage for 15-year-olds—they bought tickets to another movie, and then snuck in to the R-rated one.

But their adventure was not over yet. They quickly caught wind of a rumor that another group of underage kids had just been kicked out of the same movie. As they approached the doorway to the theater showing the forbidden movie, they saw two theater employees walking down the hallway. Someone on to their scam? They quickly walked the other way, peeking back for a window of opportunity to slip into the theater unnoticed. Hearts racing, the fear centers of the brain on high alert, they dashed into the theater when the employees looked the other way, and scrambled into a row of seats before they could be detected.

You could not have found a better way for these kids to get more enjoyment out of the movie. I am sure every raunchy joke that assaulted their senses over the next 90 minutes was twice as funny, given all the risks they had taken to get into that theater.

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In his wonderful book, Fooling Houdini, Alex Stone writes about his journey from amateur to professional magician. As a way of practicing the new card manipulations he had learned, he decided one day to cheat at a poker game, but not cheat in a way that gave him an advantage. Instead, he randomly dealt cards from the bottom of the deck, even though he didn’t know which cards were at the bottom of the deck. He dealt in a way that gave himself no advantage over anybody else, but that nevertheless required him to pull off sleight-of-hand without getting caught. The whole episode was terrifying and, therefore, exhilarating:

“Even though I wasn’t benefitting from these sneaky moves, I knew they’d be hard to explain away were I to get caught. This was at once frightening and exhilarating.

A lot of the motivation behind cheating must come from the charge you get. To truly understand the psychology of a cheater, you need to see the world like a con artist. In this worldview, everything is rigged—the casino, politics, Wall Street, life—and there are only two types of people: grifters and suckers. (It’s a lot like in magic, where you’re either a magician or a layperson.) If you look around the table and don’t see a sucker, then, according to an old saying, the sucker is you. It’s fool or be fooled, only the stakes are higher.”

Perhaps the way to reduce crime is to find harmless ways for people to cheat, similar to the way Alex Stone played poker that day. That way people can get the thrill of eluding detection without harming anybody.

 

Peter Ubel, M.D., author of Critical Decisions and Free Market Madness, is a physician, behavioral scientist, and Professor of Business and Public Policy at Duke University.

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