The Cheater's High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior

49 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2012  

Nicole Ruedy

University of Washington

Celia Moore

London Business School; Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

Francesca Gino

Harvard Business School

Maurice E. Schweitzer

University of Pennsylvania - Operations & Information Management Department

Date Written: July 18, 2012

Abstract

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

Suggested Citation

Ruedy, Nicole and Moore, Celia and Gino, Francesca and Schweitzer, Maurice E., The Cheater's High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior (July 18, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2112614 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2112614

Nicole Ruedy (Contact Author)

University of Washington ( email )

Seattle, WA 98195
United States
206-543-0494 (Phone)

Celia Moore

London Business School ( email )

Sussex Place
Regent's Park
London, NW1 4SA
United Kingdom
020 7000 8931 (Phone)

Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics ( email )

124 Mount Auburn Street
Suite 520N
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Francesca Gino

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Maurice E. Schweitzer

University of Pennsylvania - Operations & Information Management Department ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-898-4776 (Phone)
215-898-3664 (Fax)

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