You don’t have to be a professional Tour de France cyclist to be on nodding terms with cheating. Cheating and lying, on a small scale, is a normal part of every day to day life. (‘How are you?’ someone asks. ‘Great!’, we’ll reply.) Or it can mean a peak ahead to see what happens in the detective novel you’re reading. It comes in many forms, but why do we cheat and what situations are likely to unearth our dishonest side?
Interestingly, subtle environmental factors can influence our tendency to cheat. For instance, one study found people were more likely to cheat on a test when they were in a darkened room. They felt more anonymous and less like their normal, moral selves. Messy environments, with signs of deviancy such as litter and graffiti, also influence their inhabitants to be more dishonest – cheating feels more like the social norm.
But while such findings may explain dishonesty in everyday life, they don’t explain the behaviour of professional athletes. Firstly (and obviously) sportsmen and women are competitive, and once they’ve tasted the thrill of winning it can be hard return to the ordinariness of defeat. That means they’ll do anything to get ahead. Secondly, the ethics of cheating in sport can seem relative. As Malcolm Gladwell writes, winning by taking performance-enhancing drugs can be rationalised as being a greater achievement than simply having ‘the dumb luck to be born with a random genetic mutation’, ie being a naturally great athlete.
Tellingly, according to an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the thrill of cheating might not be dissimilar to the honest thrill of winning. The authors describe what they call the ‘cheater’s high‘, where we feel the excitement of having got away with something, which may sound familiar. But away from the sports stadiums and financial institutions, is there really much to be gained from cheating? As anyone who’s ‘checked’ to see the answers to a crossword, competition is more fun when you play by the rules.
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