Are These Rules Worth Breaking?

Do you play a little hooky, fudge on your taxes, or cheat on exams? You're not alone. Many people break the rules now and then. Here's the science behind our everyday transgressions.

By Jena E Pincott, published November 4, 2014 - last reviewed on March 30, 2018

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There was a time in my early thirties when I used a very old, expired grad student ID card to buy movie tickets at a discount. It was easy: I just peeled off the date sticker. I used it so often and so successfully that I rarely gave it a second thought. If I did, I'd say to myself, I'm buying a ticket I wouldn't have otherwise bought, one must be resourceful in an overpriced city, and nobody pays full price anyway, right?

If, like me, you break rules from time to time, you understand the paradox here. We think of ourselves as good and honest citizens despite daily acts (one to two on average) of cheating, lying, or otherwise breaking the rules in seemingly innocuous ways. We might exaggerate our own performance to our supervisor or look for loopholes on our taxes; we stand in the express line with too many groceries, litter, text while driving, play hooky from work, buy clothes to wear to a party and then return them for a refund; we knowingly accept too much change from a cashier, board planes before our seat is called, enjoy pirated movies and tunes, blow past speed limits, or lie to give our kids an advantage.

Morally speaking, the under-forty set is worse than those older, reported a 2012 survey at the Josephson Institute for Ethics. About half admitted to cheating on a test at least once or fibbing to save money; over three-quarters had lied to a parent about something significant; and about a fifth had stolen something from a store. The kicker: Almost all claimed they were satisfied with their overall character.

But the closer researchers look at everyday transgressions, the more they're convinced there's something to rule breaking. Character isn't the real driver; it's social and situational forces that strongly influence bad behavior. Often, not a lot of conscious awareness goes into when or to what extent we push ethical boundaries. We might break the rules under some conditions and in some mindsets, but not in others. Morality is so malleable that just thinking about breaking a rule can change the way we behave. And, of course, in knowing why we transgress, we can defend our actions—for better and for worse.

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THE CREATIVITY DEFENSE

Several years ago, Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard, and Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke and MIT, wondered whether people with higher IQs are more likely than people with lower IQs to attempt to reconcile the internal conflict that accompanies wrongdoing. Are smart people more deceptive and more willing to cheat? To find out, the duo recruited volunteers, tested their intelligence and other attributes, and then tempted them to cheat on a test.

They found that smarts didn't correlate with dishonesty. But another trait did: creativity. Cheaters scored higher on a test of divergent thinking than honest folk, and those who cheated the most were more creative than those who cheated only a little. In another experiment, Ariely and Gino posed ethical dilemmas to employees in an advertising firm and discovered that those with the most creative jobs—the copywriters and designers—were more likely to break the rules than, for instance, the accountants.

"The ability of people to behave dishonestly might be bounded by their ability to cheat and at the same time feel they are moral individuals," the authors explain. The more creative you are, the easier it is to retell the story of what happened when you behaved dishonestly, or to justify why it's morally permissible. Deception works best when the rules are ambiguous and when it's hard to discern a victim in the crime.

Test yourself. Why, for instance, did you pilfer office supplies from work? You might say that you felt disrespected when the boss asked you to xerox his personal documents, that you worked through lunch, that businesses get the stuff cheaply, or that you're not stealing money, after all. Behold the whitewash of a good storyline.

Those on the creative side of the spectrum may find it effortless to "reframe" an event. But all that's actually required of anyone is a casual mindset. And that, Gino found, is easy to induce in almost anyone—just by using subtle cues. When players in a money-making game were primed to think more flexibly (by planting words like original, novel, and imaginative in a text they read), they cheated more often than did those not given the prompts.

"Imagine working for an organization that stresses the importance of being creative, innovative, and original," Gino says. That describes many companies that have playful working environments. What we don't expect is that the use of powerful creative primes can have an impact on morals, on both an individual and a societal level. "Should we encourage less creativity in banking?" Ariely wonders. And is there a downside to memes like Apple's "Think Different" campaign?

Further, Gino argues, creativity and criminality are mutually reinforcing. The more creative you are, the more you break the rules, and the more rules you break, the more creative you get. Gino, along with Scott Wiltermuth at the University of South Carolina, offered test takers the opportunity to earn money for every question they answered correctly. Those who were induced to cheat (by making it easy to inflate their scores) came up with far more innovative solutions to problems in subsequent tests—and cared less about rules, in general—even after the researchers accounted for differences in baseline creativity.

Rule breaking—at least minor rule breaking—offers two immediate rewards. First, a cheater's high: A study at the University of Washington showed that people think they'll feel guilty or remorseful after cheating, but often find themselves in an unexpectedly good mood. They also feel smarter and more capable, in general. The second is a brief sense of freedom from all rules—a view outside the proverbial box. In this freer mindset we may make random, remote associations that aren't apparent when we're rule-bound.

So, perhaps billing for more hours than you actually worked might help you come up with more innovative solutions for your clients. Driving over the speed limit or having sex on a park bench could remove your writer's block. Perhaps a Catfish-inspired experiment—using a fake identity online, as in the movie—may inspire a whole new career move. Or so you might tell yourself.

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THE STATUS DEFENSE

Imagine two accountants who've been alerted to suspicious entries in the books. The first takes the violation seriously. The second pooh-poohs it: "Now and then you can break the rules, if necessary." So which accountant has more clout?

When psychologist Gerban Van Kleef at the University of Amsterdam, asked study participants that question, there was no contest. Most chose the second accountant. Powerful people break the rules—ergo, breaking the rules makes one seem more powerful (or inspiring or sexy).

Think of anyone with a cult following. Thelma and Louise, in the eponymous film, gain their power by violating stereotypes and the law: The ladies shoot and swindle. If Lady Gaga weren't so transgressive—her perfume brand contains notes of blood, semen, and poison—she might have languished as just another talented-yet-struggling singer-songwriter. Walter White, the chemistry teacher/family man-turned-murderous drug lord in Breaking Bad, may play out (to an extreme) the subversive, rebellious tendencies we all have but hold back.

"In its modest form, rule breaking is actually healthy," says Zhen Zhang of Arizona State University. His survey found that (at least among his white male subjects) relatively minor Ferris Bueller-style infractions committed in adolescence—damaging property, playing hooky (if not actually soaring through the air in a stolen Ferrari)—predicted an esteemed occupation in adulthood: entrepreneurship.

When young men, in particular, take a risk and it pans out, testosterone levels surge. The hormone may underlie what's known as the "winner effect," say researchers John Coates and Joe Herbert of the University of Cambridge, who tracked the hormonal activity of stock option traders (again, all male) over their good and bad days in the market. Each successful gamble, they found, primed the brain for further risk taking. The winners felt emboldened. The more wins, the higher the hormone level, the greater the confidence, the bigger the risks, and so on.

The cycle is empowering, it's a driver of success. As T.S. Eliot put it, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." But there's a catch. At a certain point in a prolonged testosterone high, Coates and Herbert warn, confidence bleeds into overconfidence. The risk taking that follows can be irrational, even reckless or ruthless.

"As individuals gain power," Zhang explains, "their behavior becomes even more liberated, possibly leading to more norm violations." Eventually, he says, this can cause "ethical numbing." Consider Steve Jobs and Apple: As Apple grew, so did its antitrust, options-backdating, and antipoaching lawsuits.

The more people care about power and winning, and the more they feel threatened by competition, the faster their values fall to the wayside. Yes, this too especially applies to men, concluded a joint study at University of California's Berkeley and Riverside campuses. When status-conscious males felt challenged in negotiation scenarios, they were more likely to tell a lie, break their word, or use shady tactics. Women, perhaps less concerned about protecting their status or dominance, didn't sell out for monetary or social gains so easily.

Not that women are paragons of virtue. Being wealthy, for instance, takes a moral toll no matter one's gender, found Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, and his colleague, psychologist Paul Piff. In their studies, the $150,000-plus-per-annum set were four times as likely to cheat as those making less than $15,000 a year when playing a game to win a $50 cash prize. The rich didn't wait their turn at a four-way intersection or stop for pedestrians at a crosswalk nearly as often as less-wealthy drivers. The affluent were even likelier to take candy earmarked for children. Democrat or Republican, the findings were the same: The wealthy acted more entitled, less empathetic, and generally more immune to basic rules of social behavior. This held true even when people were just told to role play—that is, they weren't rich in real life.

It's environment, not an intrinsic quality like personality, that abets rule breaking, argues Andy Yap, a lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Management. Put the same person in a different context and watch his or her values shift. Yap and his colleagues asked volunteers to sit in an SUV-size driver's seat versus a cramped one, or an executive-size office space versus a cubicle, and then tested their response to various moral scenarios. In the roomier settings men and women reported feeling more powerful and were also likelier to steal money, cheat on a test, and commit traffic violations in a driving simulation.

It may be that we simply conform to the expectations of whatever role we find ourselves in. Just as Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo's how-normal-people-turn-bad experiments showed that military-style uniforms make people more aggressive when role playing, so an expansive seat might make us act as if we're more powerful (just stretching our legs and assuming a power pose increases testosterone 20 percent in two minutes). In a similar example of role fulfillment, Gino found that people who donned faux Gucci sunglasses perceived themselves as slightly shady and were therefore more likely to cheat than when they wore the real deal.

Change our environment, take away an inflated sense of power, and we'll go back to keeping ourselves in check.

THE BONDING DEFENSE

In his book Moral Tribes, Harvard University psychologist Joshua Greene corrects a common misconception. We aren't born with an enlightened, universal sense of fairness for all, he explains, but a parochial one. We evolved as tribal animals who cooperated and followed the rules within small groups (Us) but not with the rest of the world (Them). Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom famously found that babies as young as six months demonstrate underpinnings of morality: They're compassionate, they like and reward helpers, and they punish selfish rule breakers. But they also show a strong bias in favor of those who share a familiar race, language, and taste in food.

We may be born with a crude sense of right and wrong, but our culture shapes and refines moral judgment. This allows for a lot of nuance when it comes to rules (their values vs. our values) and accounts for why some violations seem more legitimate than others. (I once met a Finnish hacker, a member of a group that broke all manner of international laws, who, without irony, was outraged by foreigners who walked in Helsinki's bike lanes or exceeded the city's glacial speed limit.)

Common sense tells us—and studies confirm—that most humans follow the norm within their culture (or company), even at the expense of society as a whole. If your tribe downloads pirated music, cheats on tests, sells dubious stocks, flouts the no-smoking ban, or accepts bribes, then you're likely to go with the flow or at least cover up for peers.

The spirit of Us inspires empathic cheating, or rule breaking for the benefit of other group members, even when personal sacrifice is involved. In Gino and Pierce's experiment involving a Boggle-like game, "graders" were more likely to give credit for ambiguous or invalid words to players who, like themselves, hadn't made money in previous rounds—even when they lost their own money in the judgment. Unethical behavior becomes more acceptable if it serves other people, a cause, or a principle. (Robin Hood was a thief, after all.)

What's surprising is, at least among Americans, how little it takes to feel "close enough" to others to follow their norms: the same name, birthplace, hometown, even a birthday month. In a series of experiments, Gino instructed study participants to read a story about cheaters who steal money and to see life through the cheaters' eyes. The participants ended up justifying the cheaters' bad behavior, judging it as not so shameful. Strikingly, they were also likely to copy the wrongdoers in a subsequent experiment, whether they were aware of it or not.

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THE LEVEL PLAYING FIELD DEFENSE

Now imagine you just witnessed a testosterone-fueled type cutting in line or tearing through a red light (nearly running over you and the toddler holding your hand). Or a colleague received a promotion after boozing with the boss, while you toiled and got nothing. Chances are, you'll experience a knee-jerk reaction: to get even or at least to level the field. Rules seem especially worth breaking in the name of fairness.

To test the fairness instinct, Harvard researcher Leslie John, along with two colleagues, told a group of volunteers that others in the room were making more money than they were for getting questions right on a self-corrected trivia test. Guess what happened? That group, which perceived itself as disadvantaged, cheated more than those who believed that everyone received an equal payment.

There's logic here. If other people get away with littering in the park, why should you pack out your trash? If everyone else is sharing answers on the final exam, how can you afford not to? (Asked whether lying and cheating are necessary to succeed in life, teenagers were five times more likely than those over 50 to say yes, according to the Josephson Institute.)

Or you might have a Rosa Parks moment in which you determine that rule breaking is actually the right and moral thing to do. Edward Snowden leaked top-secret government surveillance data because, he claimed, powerful wrongdoers weren't held accountable to the law, which is "corrosive to the basic fairness of society."

THE SELF-AWARENESS SOLUTION

The real threat posed by rule breaking isn't an occasional fall from grace. It's the slippery slope, minor transgressions that are so frequent and habitual that they snowball into cataclysmic ones. Moral erosion, Gino warns, can happen so slowly that it's often difficult for us to notice what's happening. You can imagine Madoff, A-Rod, or Armstrong in the beginning, saying just this one time. OK, just one more time. And eventually, they just don't think about it.

Studies confirm that rule breaking worsens over time. Kids who cheat on high school exams are three times as likely as adults to lie to a customer or inflate an insurance claim compared with noncheaters, according to the Josephson Institute. They're also twice as apt to deceive their boss and lie to get their kid into a good school.

Behavioral psychology offers a few antidotes. Many of these rely on self-control, but there are other safeguards: Keep yourself fed and well-rested— we're likelier to lapse when hungry or tired. Stay in the light, literally: We're more dishonest in dimly lit settings; like infants, we unconsciously think others can't see us if we can't see them.

"Imagine there is a conscience on your shoulder—it's often sleeping and not paying attention. You need to find ways to wake it up," Ariely says. One is to reflect on how your actions would look through the eyes of others. In a now-famous experiment at the University of Newcastle, England, a pair of hand-drawn eyeballs mounted over a collection box at a corporate coffee bar successfully enforced the honor system.

"It's important to give ourselves moral reminders at the time we feel most tempted," Gino stresses. She found that when people sign an ethics pledge at the beginning rather than the end of documents like tax forms, job applications, or claims—that is, before they have the opportunity to cheat—they are significantly less likely to do so. The same goes when asked to recall the Ten Commandments before a test, which Ariely found works even among the nonreligious. Similarly, looking at pictures of children inspires thoughts of purity and innocence. Even reminders of time passing might save us from a moment of temptation. Focus shifts away from immediate gratification and more to the long view of our lives.

It's also crucial to reflect on past bad behavior, says Ariely, which means finding ways to reset and redeem ourselves, to wipe the slate clean. "The Catholic confession, the Jewish Yom Kippur—we need more of these," he says. They can help us to snap back to a moral baseline and keep our risk-taking inclinations more or less in check. (There is, however, such a thing as a "moral offset" effect wherein we feel we've amassed so much moral capital that we can afford to commit a few naughty deeds.)

Most of us need to feel that we lead good and honest lives; we need to see ourselves in a positive light. The harder it is to do, the less inclined we are to lie and cheat, concluded a Stanford study in which participants were tempted to claim money they didn't deserve. When researchers used the verb to cheat—please don't cheat—the participants still cheated freely because they felt distanced from the act. But when the noun cheater was used—don't be a cheater—not a single person cheated. Cheating can be reframed easily enough; thinking of oneself as the C-word is harder to shrug off. It cuts to the very core of identity.

Should I, or shouldn't I? Ultimately, when you find yourself debating whether or not to break a rule, Gino offers a counterintuitive approach, based on her research with colleague Joshua Margolis and graduate student Ting Zhang: Drop the should mindset in favor of a could mindset. She explains that asking yourself What could I do? avoids pitting moral imperatives against each other. "Instead, could encourages greater exploration of possibilities and increases your ability to discover practical solutions to moral dilemmas."

So, what could you do? If, for instance, your friend asks for a crooked favor? If you could make the windfall your family needs by doing something you shouldn't? If you're inspired to hook up on a business trip three time zones from your spouse? If your boss tells you to bill clients for more hours than you worked? If your rival broke the rules and you're inspired to do the same? What could you do? In lieu of using creativity to reframe a wrongdoing, apply it beforehand to see if a workaround is possible.

Sometimes it is; sometimes it's not. The novelist Wallace Stegner summed it up in his novel, All the Little Live Things: "It is the beginning of wisdom when you recognize that the best you can do is choose which rules you want to live by." To which he added: "It's persistent and aggravated imbecility to pretend you can live without any."


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Rule Benders and Their Misdemeanors, Both Real and Surreal

  • Forbes Family: Admits to a culture of nepotism
  • Steve Jobs: Not a bean counter
  • Huey Newton: Black Panther protagonist
  • Rosa Parks: Sat where she wanted
  • Ron Woodroof: Black market AIDS drug distributor
  • Robin Hood: Stole from rich, gave to poor
  • Dirty Harry: The unforgiving vigilante
  • Thelma and Louise: Took the law into their hands
  • Walter White: Teacher-turned-badass drug lord
  • Gru, Despicable Me: Tried to steal the moon

Facebook photo credit: Elena Shur Photography/Shutterstock