Maybe Cheaters Prosper After All

The world seems to be awash in teensy little pieces of social science research that are (1) possibly fascinating but (2) also possibly meaningless. Roberto Ferdman points us to one today that suggests winning makes you more likely to cheat in the future. The participants, as usual, are a small number of university students.

Our eager young test monkeys were broken into pairs and then competed in a task. The winners were determined randomly, though the participants didn’t know that. Then they went on to round 2, where they threw a pair of dice. The details are unimportant except for these: (1) the higher the throw the better, and (2) it was pretty easy to cheat since no one could see the dice except the thrower. The chart on the right shows the basic result. The average throw should be 7, and in the control group that’s what it was. In the test group, winners obviously cheated since their average throw was much higher than 7. Losers either didn’t cheat or, possibly, actually underreported their throws a bit.

Why? Who knows. The authors suggest that winning creates a sense of psychological entitlement, but: “We do not claim that a sense of entitlement is the only factor that accounts for dishonest behavior following a competition. Given the complexity of the situation under study and the variety of mechanisms that drive dishonest behavior, it is likely that other mechanisms also come into play.”

So…maybe this is interesting. Maybe it’s meaningless. Maybe the authors should have run this experiment a dozen times to see if the results hold up. I’m not sure. However, it seems perfectly suited for drawing sweeping conclusions about the American psyche1—maybe David Brooks can do something with this?—and that alone makes it worth writing about.

1Shhh. Don’t tell anyone the study was done at an Israeli university.