Post No.: 0365
It’s not merely the case of ‘a few bad apples’ – most people cheat, but just a little bit each time. The size of the potential prize to be gained (e.g. the glory of winning gold) correlates with the incentive to cheat to acquire it, which is rational. But a cost-benefit analysis doesn’t alone explain a lot of the everyday cheating that happens. Some studies even show that it’s independent of the benefits and the risks or costs of being caught; although there has to be at least some perceived benefits to cheating for people to bother cheating at all.
Those who believe that they’ve never ever cheated before are almost certainly self-deluded about their own self-image of honesty and upstanding! But that’s exactly what’s happening whenever we cheat – we rationalise and justify our actions to diminish their iniquity and can even turn them into ‘good’ decisions or actions in our own minds, with such excuses as, “They deserved it”, “Everybody’s doing it” or, “It’s only a little thing” (which is an example of ‘minimisation’)!
There’s often a disconnect between what people say or believe they’ll do and what they’ll actually do come the time or if they ever happen to encounter a specific opportunity to cheat, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be due to consciously trying to deceive others. There are so many biases acting on us internally that we’re not even aware of them, never mind their strength of influence on us, hence we can effectively fool ourselves without knowing it. (It’s like people buying lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, or a gym membership, but knowing full well that in the past they’ve always ended up wasting them.)
Of course, people also frequently consciously and deliberately socially conceal and exaggerate the fluffy features they respectively don’t and do want others to know about them. Yet it’s strange that people do often understand that, say, on social media, there’s a lot of deception going around regarding bragging and the way people look yet they’re still complicit, competitive and trusting regarding these carefully manipulated public images they see.
Regardless, almost everybody thinks they are, on the whole, a ‘good and honest’ person. It’s like nearly everybody believes that they’re above average in intelligence, morality or are better drivers than most other drivers if they drive! But people often start with the conclusion they want and then try to rationalise it to convince themselves that it’s true, maybe with the help of some confirmation bias (e.g. remembering one’s own achievements but forgetting one’s own failures and accidents). And almost anything can be rationalised (e.g. reasoning that dealing a bribe is just quid pro quo like any other ‘you give me something and I’ll do something for you’ transaction, or reasoning that some crimes are victimless).
We can rationalise that, as long as we only cheat a little bit then we can benefit from the cheating and maintain our perceived positive self-image. And because we think we’re more moral than most other people, we assume that other people will cheat or are cheating, thus if we cheat, we’ll think we’re not being that bad compared to other people. The ‘fudge factor’, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely puts it, is that morality is not absolute – we all have a grey area and range of tolerance for our own immorality.
Believing in our own lies also adaptively helps prevent us from leaking cues to others that reveal we’re deceiving them, it displays confidence and thus garners credibility, and it biases our memories and attentions towards information that we want to be true. So we evolved this rapid and automatic instinct to at least try to rationalise some dishonesty away – our minds immediately whir in search for excuses to protect our reputations.
Then we get used to these behaviours, we’ve justified them, and then these become our norms, and so our standards gradually slip as we become more and more comfortable with our own rationalisations. The leap from small lies to larger lies is therefore not as vast as we might think.
It might help prevent depression to hold a somewhat overly-generous self-image rather than an overly-self-deprecating one. But although it’s beneficial to understand that we can all make mistakes thus we should be more self-forgiving over them if we repent, it goes too far the other way to not acknowledge that we’ve cheated or made immoral decisions by virtue of rationalising them away.
We must recognise that Adolf Hitler, as a eugenicist, thought he was a good person doing the right thing. Just about every person who does bad things can still think they’re a good person doing the right thing. So personally thinking that you’re a good person doing the right thing (and surrounding yourself with likeminded people) doesn’t necessarily mean that you are.
We use tricks to convince ourselves that we’re personally morally sound citizens almost whatever we say or do, such as rationalising away our lies by re-labelling them as ‘being economical with the truth’ or somehow believing that deception isn’t the same thing as lying(!) Loafing at work if one works for an employer for an hourly rate is essentially stealing because one is receiving pay for a piece of time one is not actually working, yet most people wouldn’t call this stealing. If we acquire a windfall from a banking error then we might feel less guilty about taking it without reporting it if we give some of that money away. Such an error may appear victimless too and only a ‘big bank’s loss’ rather than some individual person’s so there’s no empathy and that may make something easier to steal too – when people can cheat and perceive that there’ll be no victim, and feel they have a good chance of not getting caught too, enough people will try. There are always victims though, if only we think more carefully and considerately.
Thinking that others would cheat too if they could (e.g. suggesting, “You’d use offshore tax havens too if you had the money to pay particular accountants and could get away with it”) would reveal the truth about ourselves rather than necessarily those other people. Picking personally favourable examples to compare to is a classic rationalisation tactic i.e. thinking ‘well I’m not as bad as this person who’s done worse!’ Hence a cheat could still consider him/herself as upstanding if his/her reference points for comparison are worse rather than better people. And this is easier and more natural to do if one is immediately surrounded by a culture of cheating in one’s profession, which makes such systems, if self-regulating, potentially escalatory in the amount of cheating conducted because enough people are thinking ‘I’m only a little bit worse than that guy’, and so forth. It’s like a millionaire could still consider him/herself as having nowhere near enough money if his/her reference points for comparison are the multimillionaires and billionaires he/she lives amongst in the same neighbourhood.
One cannot presume that since one is a generally honest and upstanding person in all other contexts, one can be totally sure that one won’t ever cheat if given enough financial incentive to, desperation (e.g. doping to hopefully recover from an injury sooner if one is a professional athlete with a family to feed or if one’s employment is at stake if one gets kicked off the team) and opportunity to. People are quick to justify their own actions by convincing themselves ‘just about everyone else around me cheats, wastes, steals, lies or whatever’. A ‘win at all costs’ culture also encourages cheating. Many people will believe that they won’t take a new undetectable performance-enhancing drug but will suspect that many other people will – yet they’ll say they’ll take these drugs too if other competitors were! Most people who do/did dope or cheat said they wouldn’t do so beforehand. So the circumstances or situational factors are sometimes more influential on our choices and behaviours than our individual personalities or dispositional factors. Some rich people judge poor people as gangsters, criminals and therefore inherent low-lives – but if they ever find themselves with no food, shelter or prospects then perhaps they’d be tempted to steal, deal drugs and/or join a gang to survive or ‘move up in the world’ too?
That means we cannot solely rely on appealing to personal morality and self-regulation whenever the rewards of cheating are so high and the risks of being caught and/or the costs of punishment are so relatively low (precisely because of the self-regulation). This is why entrapment is problematic – a lot more of us would be criminals too if the circumstances presented to us were very different.
We cannot ignore the effects of the immediate surrounding culture on us and what we consider as ‘normal’ behaviours based on those around us. For example, a workplace environment that is full of arrogant, sexist and avaricious people will influence us and make us become more arrogant, sexist and avaricious too. The immediately surrounding culture normalises things that might not be normal or desirable in the wider community or future (e.g. Winston Churchill was actually a eugenicist too. On the one paw this is a shadow on his legacy but on another it was more indicative of the overall culture and ‘normative’ beliefs in Europe at the time. It doesn’t mean we cannot judge his attitudes, yet it’s hard to objectively say what we would’ve believed had we been alive at that time, or what he would believe now were he alive today? We don’t choose where and when we’re born – we’re not just about our genes but the sum of our genes in conjunction with our environment). Individual personality still matters but the circumstances we find ourselves in are potentially pivotal in shaping our moral choices and behaviours.
Usually everybody at least inside an inner circle will know and will be complicit in a cheating scandal (e.g. the coach, team doctor, supply chain i.e. not just the end user/athlete). But if caught, the last person in the chain (the end user/athlete in this case) will be made the scapegoat, and then there’s that classic excuse of ‘it’s only a few bad apples’ or ‘it’s an isolated incident’ (to protect the boss, team, sport or organisation’s reputation) when really far more in the barrel could be rotten too. This doesn’t imply that every single apple must therefore be rotten, but we can be pretty sure that some people are trying to cover their own behinds because they haven’t been personally caught yet. Some will claim that ‘there’s always going to be some bad apples’ – but why these people and in this organisation?
Passing the blame is a common tactic to try to protect one’s reputation. Or if one’s reputation cannot avoid taking a hit then a common fob-off is trying to pass the cheat off as ‘an honest or unintentional mistake’. Within a cultural cohort, people will also euphemistically re-label undesirable acts/things to diminish the feeling of guilt or immorality (e.g. ‘juice’ instead of ‘anabolic steroids’). Some people will rationalise cheating as a ‘pre-emptive defence’ in case someone else cheats, but this is a weak excuse and is in fact a major cause of the overall problem of cheating in the first place. Shame or great reputational cost amongst peers is a significant motivator to discourage cheating – although sometimes the reputational damage can be passed onto the snitch rather than the actual criminals when a cheating ingroup sees this snitch as a traitor(!)
Basically, our public reputations are vital to us as social creatures, but this means that we have a highly developed instinct to rationalise or conjure up excuses to preserve our sense of upstanding character. For if we can benefit from cheating and still be regarded as a trusted individual then that’ll infer huge survival and reproductive advantages. It’s therefore down to us to be on guard…