What is cheating? The simplest and most immediate answer is that cheating is breaking the rules. For example: not reporting income on one’s taxes, buying clothing with the intention of wearing it once and returning it, stealing from one’s employer, or copying others for an exam. But the simplest answer doesn’t paint the full picture. Cheating, misconduct, deception, and other forms of unethical behavior are widespread today, not just in business but in sports, government, schools, and many other arenas, and occur far more commonly than most people realize. Research suggests that most of us would behave unethically, to some extent, under the right set of circumstances.
(Dis)honesty is an overt social behavior that requires an audience to exist. Compared to cheating, dishonest acts require knowingly fabricating false information, intended to deceive an anticipated audience.
While the media often focuses on extreme cases of cheating and sensational scams (such as Madoff’s ponzi scheme), less attention is paid to what researchers call “ordinary unethical behavior.” Defined as “unethical actions committed by people who value and care about morality but behave unethically when faced with an opportunity to cheat” (Gino, 2015), the commonplace violations of ethics are often the result of people giving in to the temptation to cheat when confronted with the opportunity to do so and can be motivated by selfish, pro-organizational, or altruistic reasons. In aggregate, these behaviors are extremely costly for both businesses and society. Understanding how these behaviors are enabled and how to mitigate them can be valuable.
On this page we describe some of the major areas of research addressing the nature and causes of ordinary, everyday dishonesty. (We use the terms unethical, immoral, and dishonest behavior interchangeably, as all are highly similar but differ in prevalence across the academic literature.)
IDEAS TO APPLY (BASED ON RESEARCH COVERED BELOW)
Consider these key ideas to apply to reduce the likelihood of cheating and reinforce honest behavior.
Focus on the situations you place your employees into. Moral compasses are malleable and various factors influence them. People differ in their levels of personal integrity, but everyone is susceptible to influence. Most people cheat under some circumstances. Ethical systems design is focused on changing those circumstances, rather than (or in addition to) trying to change the people.
Establish a clear understanding of ethical values. Honesty is primarily a moral choice. In the absence of a shared understanding of values between individuals, interpretation of what is appropriate ethical behavior will be subjective and inconsistent.
Recognize when individuals aren’t living up to the standards. Keep values in check by acknowledging when behaviors are inconsistent with ethical expectations. Openly identify culpability, reasons for, and solutions to, unethical behavior.
Connect consequences to actions with commensurate punishments. The willingness to cheat increases as consequences become more distant and abstract. The existence and salience of probable consequences may reduce cheating. While not everyone cheats when presented with the opportunity, under some circumstances, most people will do so to a certain extent. Organizations should be consistent and fair when applying consequences.
Don’t underestimate our ability to rationalize behavior. Motivation to behave dishonestly or cheat is complex, may be intended to benefit individuals or organizations, and rationales to behave unethically can vary greatly from one individual to another.
Encourage honesty rather than discourage cheating. To help reduce unethical behavior, organizations must enforce codes and select employees who are highly conscientious, leading to resilience in the face of inevitable pressures to cheat.
Multiple approaches are necessary. Because individual motivations and ethics vary widely, multi-faceted approaches are needed to address the unique person-situation interactions that could otherwise lead to unethical behaviors.
AREAS OF RESEARCH
Workplace Cheating and Honesty
Workplace cheating is generally defined as “unethical acts that are intended to create an unfair advantage or help attain benefits that an employee would not otherwise be entitled to receive” (Hillebrandt & Barclay 2020). Workplace dishonesty is generally viewed by researchers as an inherently unique behavior that is distinguished from broader categories of unethical workplace behavior and organizational deviance, requiring deliberate intent to deceive an audience (Leavitt & Sluss, 2017). More recently, research examining how group interactions affect dishonesty and joint violations of ethical behavior have been labeled as collaborative cheating (Moore & Gino, 2015).
Likelihood of Cheating and Dishonesty
Lab studies repeatedly find that, while not everyone cheats when presented with the opportunity, under some circumstances most people will do so to a certain extent. In fact, some research suggests there is a natural human intuition to lie (Köbis, Verschuere, Bereby-Meyer, Rand & Shalvi, 2019). For instance, in a typical lab experiment examining cheating, people are asked to complete a task (e.g., do a math test under time pressure, roll a die) and then self-report their performance. The higher participants’ self-reported performance, the higher the payment they receive. The results usually show that most people inflate their performance to earn more money, but only to a certain level above their real performance, and far below the maximum payoff possible.
Personality traits also affect how individuals perceive information and rationalize their decisions. Creativity traits (both one’s own creativity as well as creativity triggered by the situation or job one is in) increased an individuals’ ability to justify unethical behavior (Gino & Ariely, 2012). Specific personality traits have also been found to be associated with diminished self-control (i.e., the capacity to override impulses to assure actions are in line with goals and standards) (Gino, Schweitzer, Mead & Ariely, 2011). Additionally, perceptions in how much effort is required for honest behavior were found to be predictive of subsequent dishonest behavior because it facilitates an individual’s ability to justify such actions (Lee, Ong, Parmar & Amit, 2019). Honesty is less likely when the effort required to be honest is perceived as high. As a result it may be possible to increase honesty by enhancing honesty self-efficacy, such that individuals view the honest actions as easier to achieve.
Social factors have been found to mediate the extent to which collaborative cheating occurs. Individuals with strong predispositions to behave dishonestly have been found to reinforce the behavior, leading to a “social slippery slope” of increased cheating. Observing others engage in unethical behavior appears to evoke feelings of envy that, in turn, facilitate moral disengagement and unethicality. (Thiel, Bonner, Bush, Welsh & Pati, 2021).
Conversely, rule-abiding individuals were found to mitigate the emergence and spreading of collaborative cheating by modeling honest behavior that others followed. Preferences for honesty originate from an individual’s desire to avoid negative effects from violating social norms (Blay, Douthit & Fulmer 2019). Interindividual differences in rule following provide a basis through which honest behavior can persist (Gross & De Dreu, 2021). Individuals that perceive higher negative net effects, including tangible risks/rewards and social/psychological outcomes,are more likely to have higher preferences for honesty.
For example, several studies on group loyalty found that loyalty trumped honesty, in that people viewed a loyal but dishonest act as more ethical than a disloyal but honest act (Hildreth & Anderson, 2018). Individuals are more likely to justify and engage in collective cheating when the behavior is in the interest of loyalty (Pulfrey, Durussel & Butera, 2018).
Moral Hypocrisy and Double Standards
We tend to be “moral hypocrites,” judging unethical behaviors in others but not in ourselves (Batson et al, 1999; Valdesolo and DeSteno, 2008). This disconnect between our judgments of others and ourselves is often not conscious and likely the result of very “ordinary” psychological processes. “Bounded ethicality,” (Chugh, Banaji, and Bazerman, 2005) which compromises the unconscious and automatic processes that affect our ethical decision-making, enables us to see ourselves as ethical while engaging in behaviors we would judge as unethical for others. See our handout on Bounded Ethicality.
Pro-organizational or Prosocial Cheating and Dishonesty
Highly committed and loyal employees may cheat or act dishonestly to benefit someone other than themselves (prosocial), such as coworkers or social groups, and very often their employer as a whole (pro-organizational). This is typically motivated (consciously or not) to create or maintain positive relationships with the other party, while also providing indirect positive effects to the individual in terms of status, job stability, etc.
Reciprocity can also motivate pro-organizational or prosocial dishonesty when an employee is thankful for their job and desires to do something for the company in return, or feels obligated to “pay back” another person for past favors. Paradoxically, individuals participating in more unethical pro-organizational behavior also experience higher levels of both pride and guilt (Tang et al., 2020). This internal conflict illustrates the complexity of psychological processes that ultimately determine behavior. The feelings of guilt may initiate “moral cleansing,” or reparatory behaviors, such as speaking out more (prohibitive and promotive voice), in an attempt to atone for the unethical behavior (Wang et al., 2021).
Because pro-organizational unethical behavior is done to help the organization, this is the type of problem most likely to plague those that are performing well in terms of employee satisfaction, commitment, and loyalty. In other words, people attempting to help their organization, presumably because it treats them well, may unintentionally create risks instead.
By a psychological process of “neutralization,” unethical actions are deemed acceptable by the individual because helping the organization is a just pursuit (Umphress & Bingham, 2010). High levels of ethical leadership may mitigate unethical pro-organizational behavior, compared to moderate levels (Miao et al., 2013). Low levels of ethical leadership are also related to less unethical pro-organizational behavior, however this is assumed to be the case because the employee doesn’t feel motivated to help the organization. The effects of a leader are also stronger when an employee more highly identifies with the leader.
Extent of Dishonest Behaviors
Most of the research confirms that minor cheating is much more prevalent than large-scale cheating. People behave dishonestly just enough to profit from their behavior (see Mazar et al. 2008, on how people use “inattention to moral standards” and “categorization malleability” to cheat while believing they are honest) rather than maximizing their gains. And even though prudent personalities are less likely to have cheated or to help others cheat, individuals are more likely to help friends cheat than to help strangers, and past cheating behaviors are indicative of helping others to cheat in the future. (Scrimpshire, Stone, Kisamore & Jawahar, 2017).
Individuals that behave dishonestly were also found to have a reduced ability to empathize accurately with others, ultimately decreasing the likelihood for subsequent ethical behavior. These results suggest the ability to accurately read other people’s emotional states may erode as dishonest behavior increases (Lee, Hardin, Parmar & Gino 2019).
Organizational Identity and Values
Moral emotions, such as shame, have been found to affect workplace cheating behaviors. But this relationship appears to depend on how well the individual aligns their identity to the organization.
Research indicates that, as identity becomes more aligned to the organization, cheating decreases because experiences of shame are enhanced. Such findings imply that identity may serve as a potent social control mechanism by generating an aversive state (i.e., shame) that is likely to discourage future cheating behavior that would conflict with one’s identity (Ning & Zhaoyi, 2017). The risk of this identification leading to more instead of less cheating exists if the ethical culture of the company suggests cheating is acceptable or routine. But when the organization’s ethics are clear, identifying with the company inhibits bad behavior. This awareness of what the organization prefers, ethically speaking, can moderate the effect of other pressures to act unethically (Umphress et al., 2010).
Studies on bottom-line mentality suggest that an exclusive focus on bottom-line outcomes has detrimental consequences. Under conditions of high psychological entitlement, workaholism resulting from supervisor bottom-line mentality leads to workplace cheating behavior (Farasat, Azam & Hassan, 2020). “When goals rewarded with piece-rate incentives are framed as a loss, performance was found to increase, though cheating behavior increased as well” (Nagel, Patel, Rothstein & Watts, 2020). Instead of a rigid focus on a bottom line, rewarding process-, effort-, and values-related outcomes may reduce cheating.
Company reputation can affect dishonesty by attracting different employees and perceptions of the company’s moral license. Companies with high ratings for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are likely to attract more motivated workers who are willing to work for a lower salary. However, List and Momeni (2017) found there is a dark side to CSR, as CSR increases employee misbehavior on the job due to moral licensing (i.e., doing good licenses doing bad).
Any given employee may choose to be dishonest to advance the organization and what they perceive as its noble goals. However, this effect may be outweighed by the selection effect, as morally superior workers (i.e., those who cheat less) choose to work for high-CSR firms. In the long term, the firm can benefit from CSR because it attracts “morally superior” workers who cheat less and are willing to work for a lower wage (Rodermans, 2019). A strong ethical culture and code of conduct may be helpful for reinforcing the importance of truthfulness as a company value in pursuit of CSR aims.
Determinants of Cheating and Dishonesty
Research has found that several factors may increase people’s likelihood to cheat:
- Diminished self-control
- Creativity (both one’s own creativity as well as creativity triggered by the situation or job one is in)
- Room to justify one’s own behavior
- Stretch goals
- Loss framing
Individuals who have cheated place less value on organizational justice—“an important social reward that is also a critical facilitator of workplace relationships” (Hillebrandt & Barclay 2020). People low in moral character are most likely to thrive in cheating-enabling environments (Houdek, Bahník, Hudík & Vranka, 2021). Similarly, one study found that dishonest individuals were more motivated by personal gain and self-selected out of lower compensated service roles (e.g., public jobs) to pursue higher-paying jobs (Barfort, Harmon, Hjorth & Olsen, 2019).
Studies have found organizations that strongly value measurable performance outcomes for their employees can inadvertently incentivize dishonest behaviors (Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky & Bazerman, 2009). Different processes prevent dishonesty for different individuals, and interventions that are most effective are multifaceted (Speer, Smidts & Boksem, 2020). Employees’ perception of the need to raise performance paired with the potential for negative consequences is threatening and heightens self-protection needs. Driven by self-protection, employees have been found to experience anger and heightened self-serving cognitions, which motivate cheating behavior (Mitchell, Baer, Ambrose, Folger & Palmer, 2018)
Research has shown that interventions are most likely to reduce cheating if they increase the salience of a person’s sense of self. When behavior and self-perceptions are incongruent, cognitive dissonance (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 2019) results, motivating a change to make them congruent (amelioration). For example, people are less likely to cheat if their sense of self is activated when faced with opportunities to behave dishonestly (Bateson, Nettle & Roberts, 2006). Behavior can change to match self-perception, or the reverse. An honesty oath, which aims to increase moral awareness, may be effective in mitigating lying behavior (Beck, Bühren, Frank & Khachatryan 2020.) Giving an oath can shift perception of self and moral awareness, and that change in one’s own moral thinking consequently influences future behavior.
A common suggestion to reduce dishonesty is to increase individual awareness of their moral self-perception, inducing a motivation to improve it (relative to an ideal standard). However, the typical relationship between self-perceptions and behavior may change in the presence of competitive pressures, leading to self-awareness enhancing interventions backfiring (Cibik & Sgroi, 2020), again underscoring the person-situation interaction as an important concept.
FUTURE RESEARCH RECOMMENDATIONS
Some evidence suggests a publication bias exists in research for almost all measures of dishonest behavior. Future research on dishonesty would benefit from more representative participant pools and from clarifying why different experiment paradigms may yield different conclusions (Gerlach, Teodorescu, & Hertwig, 2019).
Much of the literature appears to be theoretical in nature and a substantial portion of the extant research has used university students to measure their actual or intended cheating behaviors. Future research using real-world study designs are needed to help orient findings on dishonesty and cheating into practical application (Köbis, Verschuere, Bereby-Meyer, Rand & Shalvi, 2019).
Few studies have tested for variations of cheating behaviors across countries and cultures. Suggested future research should examine these concepts with more focus on the social and formal contexts of the individuals (Marques, Ferreira & Gomes, 2019).
Future research should also examine the efficacy of interventions and their relation to the context in which they are applied (e.g., using honor codes in education).
Ordóñez, L., Schweitzer, M., Galinsky, A., & Bazerman, M. (2011). Goals Gone Wild: The systematic side effects of overprescribing goal setting. In Organizational Collaboration. Routledge.
Bazerman & Gino (2012). Behavioral ethics: Toward a deeper understanding of moral judgment and dishonesty. Annual Review of Law and Social Science.
Gerlach, P., Teodorescu, K., & Hertwig, R. (2019). The truth about lies: A meta-analysis on dishonest behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 145(1), 1–44. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000174
Hillebrandt, A., & Barclay, L. J. (2020). How cheating undermines the perceived value of justice in the workplace: The mediating effect of shame. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(10), 1164–1180.
Köbis, N. C., Verschuere, B., Bereby-Meyer, Y., Rand, D., & Shalvi, S. (2019). Intuitive honesty versus dishonesty: Meta-analytic evidence. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(5), 778-796.
Ruedy, N. E., Moore, C., Gino, F., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2013). The cheater’s high: The unexpected affective benefits of unethical behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(4), 531.