Our Cheating Hearts: Honor, Integrity and Playing by the Rules are All Out of Style

Don’t be the last honest sucker on Earth!

“THE UNETHICAL TENDENCY is a human universal,” said Paul Piff, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. But not everyone bends and breaks the rules equally.

Mr. Piff’s research shows that the rich are more likely to cut off other drivers, or cheat in games of chance, and subjects who identified greed as a positive value were more likely to cheat. But greed isn’t the only factor. Creative people are more likely to cheat, he told us, as are the highly educated.

Unethical behavior seems to be driven by rank—the more status you have, the less dependent you’re likely to be on social relationships—and self-focus. Meanwhile, watching other people cheat changes our understanding of what’s socially acceptable. Successful people are more likely to cheat, increasing the chances that they’ll become still more successful. And, we suppose, increasing the chances that they’ll be surrounded by successful people who are more likely to cheat themselves.

“It’s something called social proof, and it’s one of the strongest forces in society,” said Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University and the author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, a book-length work on the motivations for cheating.

Which might explain why it’s so rare to find a lone lawbreaker. If one Libor submitter was rigging rates for traders, it’s only natural that the others would feel entitled to a little bit of Bollinger. If UBS was dabbling in rigging bids on municipal bond investment contracts, as federal prosecutors allege, it’s not hard to imagine (as prosecutors also allege) JPMorgan or Bank of America or GE Capital dipping their toe in the same pool.

Or as Noel Biderman, founder of Ashley Madison, which describes itself as “the most successful website for finding an affair and cheating partners,” told The Observer, “When Kristen Stewart behaves this way, I think it gives greater license to regular people.”

Oh, Kristen. When we heard she was giving up a leading role in the romantic drama Cali after her affair with director Rupert Sanders was exposed by paparazzi, we thought Ms. Stewart was the last soul in Hollywood with the capacity for shame. Then we heard rumblings Ms. Stewart’s ex Robert Pattinson has had several affairs himself. Was she really contrite, or simply laying in wait for the shoe to drop on her former beau? And in that case, was she moving on from cheating in love to cheating in public relations?

Perhaps not quite, but it called to mind Philip Hindes, the British cyclist who told reporters that he crashed intentionally in the team sprint event, to take advantage of a rule that allowed his team to restart the race. It may have been poor sportsmanship, but Mr. Hindes’ intentional crash fell within the rules, and the Brits eventually claimed Olympic gold. It’s not hard to argue that the cyclist had a duty to teammates and nation to take the dive—even if a widespread adoption of Hindesian behavior would ruin the sport for everybody.

The four women’s badminton teams that tanked their way through preliminary matches in hopes of gaining a clearer path to the podium were less successful in their attempt to skirt the spirit of the competition. But Algerian distance runner Taoufik Makhloufi managed a bit of rule-skirting that the British cyclist might applaud: He was disqualified for the London Games for walking off the track in the middle of an 800 meters heat, in a suspected ploy to conserve energy for another event. Two days later, Mr. Makhloufi was a gold medalist in the 1500 meters.

“What we’ve seen is clear gray areas and big rewards,” David Callahan, co-founder of the think tank Demos and the author of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, told The Observer. A few hundredths of a second can be the difference between first and second, but “there’s an enormous difference between gold and silver when it comes to endorsements,” Mr. Callahan said.

What’s true in sports is true in school or finance. In a study published by the whistleblower practice at law firm Labaton Sucharow last month, 30 percent of 500 financial services pros surveyed said that bonus considerations increased the pressure to behave unethically. The Stuyvesant High School students who had to take a state Regents exam a second time after they were implicated in a scheme to share answers by text message were competing for places at the nation’s top colleges.

“Some people feel that if they don’t cheat they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.” Danny Solomon, who graduated from Stuyvesant this year, said in an email. “For some, integrity be damned, drastic action is justified.”