Cheating is circumventing or violating legal or moral rules, pretending to respect them, in order to take unfair advantage of them. Cheating is everywhere: we have all heard of scandals that have splashed the world of sport, business, politics, etc. Many of us would also have cheated at least once during our school years… In short, if cheating seems to be part of human nature, it can take many forms and have varying degrees of severity.

That being said, we often discuss ways to prevent it, particularly in the educational system, but much less so about the reasons behind it. So let’s dive in: why are we cheating? Here are some avenues to better understand this complex phenomenon.

A Pinocchio is dormant in each of us

Although lying and cheating are distinct (see the extra information), cheating involves lying. However, lying is an integral part of human nature, and even of the child’s good development. Canadian researchers (Talwar and Lee, 2008) have established in this regard that the ability to lie unfolds during childhood in three phases: the so-called “primary” lie occurs around the age of two or three, while toddlers are able to make statements that they know are false; the “secondary” lie appears around the age of four, when children are able to distinguish their thinking from that of others and are therefore aware that they can fool their interlocutor; as for the “tertiary” lie, it manifests itself around the age of seven or eight, becoming more credible because of the development of logical thinking at this “age of reason.”

Since reasoning (with your mind or heart) does not always prevail in the adult world, sometimes “man is a wolf to man.” In extreme circumstances, lying to deceive the enemy can save one’s skin. To this end, many survivors of the greatest disasters in history—think of wars and genocides—have testified to it. If human beings can use lies as a survival reflex, they can also turn them into real art, as is the case with theatre or, on a more cynical note, politics…

Finally, it should be noted that if a majority of us have already committed some “ordinary” lies—punctual, harmless and practical—lying maliciously or repeatedly is the concern of a minority and is often attributable to a psychiatric condition. Mythomania, which translates into a compulsion to lie without necessarily being aware of it, is undoubtedly the best known of them. Some brain diseases or lesions can also be the cause of fabulations.

By a simple cost-benefit calculation

Can I effortlessly win without being caught? This is a question that inevitably comes to the mind of the person contemplating the idea of cheating. It is also the basis of the economist theory known as the “Simple Model of Rational Crime” or SMORC. If this cost-benefit calculation seems logical, it is simple to explain on its own why an individual is indulging in dishonesty, with moral principles, of course, also playing a role in the equation. However, this theory could be applied in contexts where we are more likely to temporarily set aside our usual principles, such as when we play board games.

To further muddy the waters, the behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty (2012), observed in his experiments that we would be more inclined to cheat if our action could be beneficial not only to ourselves but also to a third person. More surprising: we would be even more motivated if our cheating could benefit others before ourselves. Pure altruism or a vital need to clear your conscience? Probably a little bit of both.

It’s the neocortex’ fault

Homo Sapiens individuals like to see themselves totally distinct from their animal counterparts, but science sometimes brings them back to earth… most often, to the level of primates. With the latter, they share, among other things, the fact that they have a developed neocortex, an advantage whose appearance is attributable to the increasing complexity of social relationships to the two species.

The neocortex is the outer layer of the cerebral hemispheres. Exclusive to mammals, it is the center of higher cognitive functions. In humans, it makes possible functions such as language, abstract thinking, decision-making, creativity… and probably cheating! In the early 2000s, researchers discovered that the size of the neocortex was directly related to the ability of primates to deceive, a finding that led them to conclude that the larger this part of the brain is in a species, the more skilled its members are in certain forms of social manipulation and deception.

As mentioned above, the neocortex also has a role to play in creativity, and the latter is said to have some link to cheating. This was concluded by two economists in 2011 when they observed that candidates in this study who scored higher on creativity tests were also morally more flexible and more likely to succumb to dishonest behavior.

To close this ethological segment, it cannot be ignored that cheating is not the prerogative of species with a neocortex; it is part of living organisms. Deceptive behavior has indeed been observed not only in other animals but also in unicellular cells… more precisely, in certain yeast strains, which have shown themselves capable of diverting molecules produced by other cells for their own benefit. Subsequent research led to the hypothesis that if these yeast populations tolerated cheaters, it could be because mixed strategies of “cooperation” and “cheating” allowed them to grow more quickly, thus benefiting as many individuals as possible.

For the game… and the adrenaline!

Essential to the overall development of the child, playing remains a fundamental activity throughout our lives. This need to play is innate, in us as in animals. Of course, in adulthood, playing takes on more sweetened forms, less obvious than in young children, but it continues to drive some of our behaviors. The Larousse defines the game as “a physical or mental activity, not imposed, not intended for any utilitarian purpose, and in which one devotes oneself to entertain oneself, to take pleasure in it.”

Speaking of pleasure, a study called The Cheater’s High found that cheating can lead to feelings of personal satisfaction. The authors noted that cheating participants felt more positive feelings than those who remained honest, even though the “cheaters” predicted that they would have negative feelings about unethical behavior.

In his Essay on Cheating in the business world, Yvon Pesqueux discusses the importance of games in his definition of cheating: “Cheating is built around the notion of game in the first sense of the term (because it is about playing with the rules) and in the second sense of the term, because cheating is born out of areas of imprecise rules and in the hope of a win. Cheating, therefore, arises not only from the circumvention of the rules of the game but also from their margin of imprecision.”

If cheating can be seen as a game, it is a risky game, because any cheater runs the risk of being unmasked and then punished. But, as we know, risk-taking can be exciting, especially for those who thrive on strong emotions, since it leads to the secretion of adrenaline and dopamine that stimulate the mind as well as the body.

Adolescence being the period when risk appetite is at its height, you will not be surprised to learn that it is at this age that student cheating reaches its peak. According to various sources, at least half of students felt to it, at least once, during high school (Anderman and Midgley, 2004; Christensen Hughes and McCabe, 2006; Gilbert and Michaut, 2009).

The others do it, so do it…

Since humans are gregarious beings, the group effect should not be underestimated when the opportunity to cheat arises. In The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty (2012), Dan Ariely concludes that the majority of us cheat a little, but that serious or recurring cheating is, fortunately, the work of a minority. Nevertheless, after having learned of the experimentation of two psychologists with university students in exams, Ariely did not hesitate to describe cheating as a “contagious disease.” The purpose of the experiment in question was to observe the behavior of students who witnessed the cheating (without adverse consequences) of one of them. It emerged that in the presence of the cheater, students were three times more likely to commit this immoral act.

This phenomenon of contagion or imitation is evident in several other studies as well as in the real 2012 Harvard cheating scandal, where 125 students out of 279 students in the same class were investigated for fraud during an end-of-cycle test. Finally, 70% of them were forced to leave the institution. Harvard being one of the most prestigious universities in the world, is it necessary to note that this form of dishonesty spares neither the brightest nor the most privileged people?

Is it our aversion to iniquity—which we share with primates—that drives us so irresistibly and unreasonably to imitate our neighbor? The question arises since we are indeed more likely to violate our moral principles when we believe we are the victim of an injustice…

We were all students

Cheating in schools has been studied extensively, and interest in it is not likely to wane, given the new challenges posed by digital technologies. Since the school is the incubator of society, as well as a microcosm of society, it is in our interest to take a look at what studies on academic cheating have to teach us. These studies tell us that a majority of students have already cheated at least once during their school careers—a constant trend over time, not only among our European cousins but also among us in North America. They also corroborate the fact that it is in high school that cheating culminates.

Two French sociologists who have investigated the issue in recent years note that the reasons for taking action differ from one school level to another. In elementary school, the fear of being sanctioned, rejected by peers or humiliated by the teacher prevails, while in high school, students are more likely to cheat in subjects they consider less important in order to devote their energy to those that matter more. Other factors that can increase the risk of cheating among high school students include: considering it as commonplace behavior (Jensen and al., 2002), having a conflictual relationship with parents, and fearing negative comparison with other students (Bong, 2008). At university, the search for a better grade is the primary motivation for both students with difficulties and those who reach success easier; the second motivation is the lack of work done to succeed (Guibert and Michaut, 2012). It should be noted that female students would cheat much less than their male classmates, a disparity also noted in the scientific community.

A European study of university students found that the more they adhere to neoliberal values—the ambition to succeed, a quest for power, etc.—the more likely they were to consider cheating as acceptable. Other researchers, who have examined cheating among scientists, have concluded that fear associated with loss can be an even more powerful driver of dishonesty than the prospect of potential gain.

We may wonder whether the values of our time, also prevalent in our education system, are not a rich fertilizer for cheating. Although we live in a legal society that cultivates moral ideals, our hyper-valuation of performance, competition, and success generates all kinds of discomforts inextricably linked to this fear of loss: pressure, anxiety, lack of self-confidence, to name a few.

Fudge factor theory and other mitigating mechanisms

Dan Ariely argues with his “fudge factor theory” that we would be willing to commit, to some extent, dishonest acts when we are able to justify them, to rationalize them. Add to that the fact that we all have a kind of “above-average syndrome,” which has been demonstrated time and again, which tends to overestimate our integrity compared to that of others. Telling us that our neighbor would have done the same is an excuse that many of us use to avoid guilt when we violate our moral code.

If we set ourselves ethical limits that we cannot cross because we can no longer look at ourselves in the mirror, we are also masters in the art of giving ourselves a clear conscience. It is for our mental balance that we must preserve this good self-image. According to several researchers, this mechanism would be one of our sensitive points on which we should rely to counter cheating. The simple commitment to respect an honor code would thus represent one of the most effective means of prevention.

Still, in his Essay on Cheating, Yvon Pesqueux takes an unusual look at cheating when he approaches its “paradoxically educational virtue” found “in the experience, it allows to accumulate.” He says, “what distinguishes the rule from habit is that it is necessary to know the rules to comply with them. It is this game in our conscience with the rule(s) that allows a demoralized approach to cheating to be founded by allowing its affiliation to learning. Cheating is then characterized by a game against the rule (even before it is a game against others).” To say to yourself that you are having fun breaking a rule: isn’t it much less guilty than admitting that you are dishonest towards someone else?

Of course, time and context are determining factors in whether or not an act is considered dishonest. According to Pesqueux, our time seems favorable to those who have elastic ethics: “[…] deviance also arises from the ambiguity of norms, which then opens the field of possible interpretations (and therefore behaviors). And the multiplication of the norms of the ˈliberal momentˈ (Pesqueux, 2007) induces as much the multiplication of derogations to avoid cheating as the occurrences of deviance. But as J. Selosse (2003) points out: ˈno conduct is deviant in itself, it is the meaning given to it according to individual and social normative criteria that gives it this character.ˈ”

We still have to ask primates and yeasts what they think about it!


And you (who are, of course, perfectly honest 😉 ), why do you think we cheat?

Cheating and lying: the same thing?

While they are sometimes used indiscriminately, the terms lying and cheating are not equal. Without entering into a philosophical debate, we can say that cheating always involves obtaining an undue gain or advantage, while this might not always be the case with lying. While the latter may be malicious or pathological, in its most serious forms, it is nevertheless likely to be also involuntary, innocent, white or even joyful. In other words, at its best, it can be the result of good intentions, harmless to no one, and even helpful.

“Not all truth is good to be said”— we can state that lying fulfills a social function by softening our relationships with others when necessary. You probably make good use of the white lie yourself, if only to avoid having to answer on certain days that “no, you are not doing so well”…

While lies can go hand in hand with respect for everyone’s free will, the right not to reveal the very essence of one’s thoughts, cheating implies breaking a social pact, an implicit or explicit commitment with others. By extension, this “other” can also be ourselves, our own consciousness with which we can maintain a relationship of duality. Don’t we sometimes say that we “cheat” on a commitment to ourselves?

That being said, the one who cheats necessarily lies; and not white or joyfully, but “maliciously,” that is, to harm others or take undue personal advantage.

Lies: crispy facts in bulk

Here are some interesting statements from Pamela Meyer‘s TED conference in which she explains how to identify a liar. The author of Liespotting is a certified fraud examiner and her TED conference is one of the most viewed of all time.

“In a single day, we are lied to 10 to 200 times.”

“Strangers lie to each other 3 times in the first 10 minutes of their meeting.”

“You lie more to strangers than to your colleagues at work.”

“Extroverts lie more than introverts.”

“Men lie 8 times more about themselves than about others.”

“Women lie more in order to protect others.”

“In a married couple, spouses lie to each other in 1 in 8 interactions; while this is the case in 1 in 3 interactions in an unmarried couple.”

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.