Naughty but nice


A series of experiments carried out by Nicole Ruedy of the University of Washington_s Foster School of Business, C...
A series of experiments carried out by Nicole Ruedy of the University of Washington_s Foster School of Business, Celia Moore at London Business School, Francesca Gino at Havard Business School and Maurice Schweitzer at Wharton (detailed in this working paper) set out to test whether bad behaviour is actually followed by bad feelings. Given an experimental setup that made it both easy and worthwhile to cheat, the participants predicted that, if they cheated, they would feel worse afterwards. Then the experimenters asked them to solve word puzzles, with a bonus for each word unscrambled, and check their own work. Two-fifths of participants cheated_and afterwards, the cheaters reported feeling significantly more cheerful than did their honest counterparts.

A subsequent experiment added a new variable: a note at the end reminding the test-takers that cheating was possible and asking how reliable they judged their own results. This did not dampen the cheaters_ spirits any. Quite the opposite: those who received the warning actually reported less negative emotion later. The authors dub this afterglow the _cheater_s high_.

Not all bad behaviour results in a cheater_s high. Previous experiments have suggested that participants who have to choose to do harm to another person get no joy out of it, at least in the lab setting. By comparison, cheating on a word problem, with no apparent victim, produces a relatively cheap thrill. And this, the authors suggest, may help explain the prevalence of similarly small crimes such as shoplifting or tax fraud_by people who would otherwise call themselves honest.

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