By Laura Entis, published on January 1, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Most studies of behavior assume that ordinary people who behave unethically will later feel guilty. But while participants in a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology predicted that they would feel bad after cheating on a test, the opposite turned out to be true—those who cheated experienced a cheater's high: the thrill, the authors speculate, of having gotten away with it.
If cheating makes people feel good, why do they imagine they will feel guilty? Most of us need to believe that we are innately moral, explains London Business School's Celia Moore, a coauthor. Predicting that we will enjoy cheating does not fit in with this ideal view of ourselves. People may think: I'm not the kind of person who would cheat. "But in the moment, when there's a temptation, we're driven more by the good feelings of getting the cookie from the cookie jar," says Moore.
She recalled a recent trip to a pier full of "cheesy slot machines" that discharged tickets, which could then be exchanged for prizes. "I realized it was actually more exciting trying to find tickets people had left in the machines" than it was to win them fair and square, Moore says. Admitting the glee in such behavior might point the way toward better strategies for curbing its more harmful manifestations.
"When there is a salient victim, most people do feel guilty when they behave unethically," says Kathleen Vohs, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota. The rule-breaking in the JPSP study (and on the pier) was largely victimless; it is harder to maintain a positive self-concept if we hurt someone. It's the difference, she says, between cheating in a friendly game of golf and cheating on your wife.