Cheating to Make Money is Influenced By Your Personality, Not the Circumstances


Aug 21, 2019


New research has found economic circumstances, such as poverty or an impoverished upbringing, have no bearing on people’s propensity to cheat. Rather, cheating is more likely caused by an individual’s tendency to cheat, meaning, that it is an innate trait rather than the product of the economic environment.

To establish whether people’s financial circumstances play any role in getting them to cheat, researchers chose to study a group of people from a remote community in Guatemala. They gave participants the opportunity to cheat without any consequences, and they were tested both during times of scarcity and relative abundance. For seven months before the autumn harvest of coffee, the villagers experience scarcity. For the remaining five months, they are relatively prosperous, the study notes. Therefore, without banks and lack of access to credit, the area can’t really make their earning last much beyond the harvest period. Hence, the researchers chose to study them during both these times.

For the study, participants were asked to roll dice within a cup. Depending on the number rolled, participants received money. If a one was rolled, the participant received five quetzales, a little less than a dollar. Rolling a two paid 10 quetzales, a three paid 15 quetzales and so on. Rolling a six received nothing. They had to roll the dice twice by shaking the cup, while unsupervized, which gave the participants an opportunity to cheat in order to increase their earnings.

“If you look at the high paying numbers, there are three numbers out of six. So, 50% of the time they should report a high payoff and 50% of the time a low payoff,” Dr. Marco Palma, lead author and director of the Human Behavior Lab at Texas A&M University, said in a statement. “We find that they reported about 90% of high numbers during scarcity and about 90% in abundance. So, there was no change in cheating across the two periods.”

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This, he said, “… tells us there is no real change for the propensity to cheat during scarcity and abundance. Meaning, this is more like an inner characteristic of an individual.”

Furthermore, when asked to cheat for a friend, rather than for themselves, the researchers found, “in general, people cheat for friends or family, but at a lower rate than they would for themselves. And this doesn’t really change across scarcity and abundance conditions,” added Dr. Palma in a statement.

Interestingly, when people were asked to cheat for a stranger, researchers found that during the abundance period, people didn’t cheat, but in a period of scarcity, they were okay to cheat. Palma said the participants’ willingness to cheat for strangers during scarcity was unexpected. “We believe that the villagers became more empathetic during times of scarcity, feeling the same concern for outsiders as they did for their friends and family,” Dr. Palma wrote in an article in The Conversation.

According to another author of this study, Dr. Billur Aksoy, assistant professor of economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, these findings appear to be universal, reported Science Daily.

“In our experiment, we did not find any significant impact of scarcity on cheating behavior when the beneficiaries were the subjects themselves,” Dr. Aksoy said. “In a recent unpublished study, titled ‘Poverty negates the impact of social norms on cheating,’ other researchers also reach the same conclusion in their experiment with rice farmers in Thailand. This suggests that our findings are not exclusive to Guatemalan coffee farmers, but, of course, there is more research that needs to be done in order to better understand this phenomenon. In fact, a study conducted in 23 countries highlights very little differences in cheating behavior across the countries.”

Therefore, going by the findings of this study, it would be wrong to consider two things — first, that only the poor cheat, and second, that they cheat because they are poor. What about the rich who “…falsify loan applications, evade taxes and run Ponzi schemes?” asks Dr. Palma in The Conversation. “If money were the driving factor behind cheating, for example, it wouldn’t really make sense for wealthy people to break the law for financial gain. People inclined to cheat will do so whether they are rich or poor.”


Written By Anubhuti Matta

Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she’s busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.


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