Cheating for strangers

Scenario 1: Would you file an incorrect tax return if it gained you £1000?

Scenario 2: Would you file an incorrect tax return if it gained you £500?

What if scenario 2 meant that a friend also profited from your misdeed, and also gained £500? What if it wasn’t a friend, but a complete stranger?

Traditional theory would suggest that you’d be more likely to cheat in scenario 1: the benefit of cheating is larger (assuming that the risks of being caught are the same in both scenarios). If you really like your friend, you might be likely to cheat in scenario 2 as well. But for a complete stranger? Surely not.

And yet apparently people may be more likely to cheat when the spoils are shared with others – according to a paper by Scott Wiltermuth at the University of Southern California. The study gave participants tasks such as word jumbles where they were given the opportunity to cheat – sometimes the spoils were shared with a friend or stranger, sometimes they weren’t.

People were more likely to cheat when the gains were shared with a friend (particularly women), but also when the gains were shared with a randomly selected participant. This effect only disappeared when participants were told that the stranger held morally objectionable views (such as being prejudiced against ethnic minorities).

Bernie Madoff shared the spoils (picture source: The Telegraph)

The results suggested that people see cheating as less unethical and less greedy when someone else gets to benefit.

Which perhaps explains why Bernie Madoff was a philanthropist too.

The full paper, “Cheating more when the spoils are split”, is in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes .

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