Do cheats have a guilty conscience?
It has long been assumed that unpleasant feelings like guilt arise after we have cheated, and that these mean that we are unlikely to cheat again, as we want to avoid feeling bad. A study by Nicole Ruedy and colleagues, however, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests this isn't the case.
The researchers asked people to predict how they would feel if they cheated, and found they thought they would feel bad. They then gave people the opportunity to cheat, by misreporting the number of puzzles they successfully solved in a time period, and asked them how they felt afterwards. Interestingly, those who cheated by reporting that they solved more puzzles than they actually did felt happier than they had before the experiment, while those who didn't cheat showed no change.
To ensure it wasn't because the cheaters gained a greater reward, the researchers varied the amount of money participants received for a correct solution, and found it didn't affect their feelings- it seems it is the act of cheating, not the reward, that made cheaters feel good.
The same effect is even seen when participants didn't do the cheating themselves. In one experiment, a second person marked the participant's puzzles, and sometimes misreported their result. Participants whose marker said they had completed more puzzles than they had also got the 'cheater's buzz'. The researchers therefore argue it is having the chance to 'get away with it' that gives participants the positive feelings.
This study was limited, in that there were no real losers when the participant cheated. It may be that if their actions had affected someone else badly, the positive feelings would have gone away. However it is an important finding, as if someone has the chance to cheat in a relatively minor way, and gets away with it, that buzz might lead them to do the same thing again, through positive reinforcement.