Call it “cheater’s high:” As long as no one gets hurt in the process, people often feel good about themselves after dishonesty, sometimes even better than those who were honest.

Although the 1,000 or so study participants predicted they’d feel bad about cheating, most did not when faced with different opportunities across several experiments. The study was published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The key to the high seems to be that the trickery isn’t intended to harm anyone.

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“When people do something wrong specifically to harm someone else, such as apply an electrical shock, the consistent reaction in previous research has been that they feel bad about their behavior,” said the study’s lead author, Nicole E. Ruedy, of the University of Washington, in a press release.

In one experiment, for example, participants took math and logic tests. In one group, the test moved to the next screen as soon as a question was answered, allowing no opportunity for cheating. In the second group, a button popped up that would show the correct answer, but the participants were instructed to ignore it. Some 68 percent cheated and clicked on the button — and were happier afterward that those in the first group.

“The good feeling some people get when they cheat may be one reason people are unethical even when the payoff is small,” Ruedy said.

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People also felt good when other people cheated for them; when another person inflated their test score, for example.

The findings suggest that it may be important to better understand how emotions affect morality, wrote the researchers, who quoted Ernest Hemingway: “About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”


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