The Cheater's High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior
49 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2012
Date Written: July 18, 2012
Many theories of moral behavior share the assumption that unethical behavior triggers negative affect. In this paper, we challenge this assumption and demonstrate that unethical behavior can trigger positive affect, which we term a “cheater’s high.” Across six studies, we find that even though individuals predict they will feel guilty and have increased levels of negative affect after engaging in unethical behavior (Studies 1a and 1b), individuals who cheat on different problem-solving tasks consistently experience more positive affect than those who do not (Studies 2-5). We find that this heightened positive affect is not due to the accrual of undeserved financial incentives (Study 3) and does not depend on self-selection (Study 4). Cheating is associated with feelings of self-satisfaction, and the boost in positive affect from cheating persists even when cheaters acknowledge that their self-reported performance is unreliable (Study 5). Thus, even when prospects for self-deception about unethical behavior have been reduced, the high cheaters experience from “getting away with it” overwhelms the negative affective consequences that people mistakenly predict they will experience after engaging in unethical behavior. Our results have important implications for models of ethical decision making, moral behavior, and self-regulatory theory.
Keywords: cheating, dishonesty, ethics, unethical behavior, affect
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