de Doug KR2Q
The New York Times
The dark side I
Why do people cheat?
By Drake Bennett
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2007
These are tough times for fair play.
Any sports fan could reel off a list of recent cheating scandals: the doping
professional cycling and baseball; match-fixing in Italian professional soccer
of the most storied teams in Europe; the National Basketball Association
admitted to betting on games he worked.
Closer to my home, three weeks ago, a police prosecutor in Hanover, New
announced that he might bring felony charges against nine students accused of
into their high school to steal advance copies of exams. And the New England
the National Football League, the favorites to win the Super Bowl, were caught
signals by their opponent during a game.
All of which has left people scratching their heads. Why would smart students
steal a test?
Why would the best team break a rule, especially when they had already been
about the behavior?
Why, in other words, do people cheat in situations where there is little to
gain - one
good grade, a slight edge in a game - and so much to lose?
Irrationality may be the rule, and not the exception, when it comes to
according to scholars who have turned their attention to the mysteries of the
Cheating is often thought of as something that is done after cold calculation.
new research has found that people are prone to cheat even when it is not in
interest. Instead of carefully weighing the costs and benefits of breaking the
people can be heavily swayed by peer pressure, mood, their image of themselves.
Sometimes, people even cheat out of a sense of fairness.
The new findings about the psychology of cheating comes at a time when other
researchers are finding evidence that cheating is a widespread part of sports,
not merely in the sort of cases that make the news. Using economics as a
tool, they're arguing that foul play, either by referees or players, is common
as varied as figure skating, basketball and sumo wrestling.
Economists who have looked specifically at sports argue that their work is more
just an investigation of games, but a window into the workings of the human
To them, sports and games serve as ready-made experiments - people competing on
roughly equal terms, under agreed-upon rules, for the same clear, quantifiable
with the potential to yield insights into how we live the rest of our lives.
"It's a metaphor," says Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor at the
Pennsylvania's Wharton School who has looked at point shaving in college
"The data are plentiful, and we can have very sharp predictions and test them.
the lessons, hopefully, are generalizable."
If economists like Wolfers are to be believed, cheating is more widespread than
hear about. Wolfers looked at the scores of more than 44,000 Division 1 college
basketball games from 1989 to 2005 and found that the number of times that the
winning team just failed to beat the "spread," the expected margin of victory
determined by Las Vegas bookmakers, couldn't be explained by chance.
More likely, he argues, players on the winning team were holding back just a
bit. They would still win, but so would gamblers who had bet against the spread
and who, Wolfers surmised, had colluded with the players beforehand. Wolfers
that 5 percent of the games with large spreads showed this sort of suspicious
Perhaps the best-known study of this kind was by Steven Levitt, an economics
professor at the University of Chicago and co-author of the best-selling book
"Freakonomics," who looked at match fixing in sumo wrestling. Other economists
who have delved into the subject include Eric Zitzewitz, an associate professor
economics at Dartmouth, who has found evidence of vote trading among
judges in the Olympics. Luis Garicano and Canice Prendergast of the University
along with Ignacio Palacios-Huerta of Brown University, have looked at
favoritism among Spanish soccer referees.
Paradoxically, one of the most powerful motivations for cheating, according to
who study decision-making, is a desire for fairness.
In recent weeks, the most widely heard justification on New England sports
radio shows for the Patriots' cheating was that other teams in the league were
certainly doing the same thing. Professional cyclists describe similar
pressures to take
performance-enhancing drugs - a complaint only strengthened by the recent
of Tour de France champion Floyd Landis's positive drug test.
In a way, this is common sense: If an opponent is illegally gaining some
advantage over me,
I'll want to balance things out. But what's more surprising is the way the
beyond situations in which cheating confers an advantage.
Robert Kurzban, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has found
that players in
a game he created are less likely to behave selfishly when they know that other
aren't behaving selfishly, even though being the only player to behave
increases one's winnings at the game. That would suggest that most people, if
be assured no one else was cheating, would not to cheat.
Daylian Cain, an assistant professor specializing in decision-making at the
Yale School of
Management, believes that the "defensive" model explains much of the cheating
in sports. Since coaches and players can't know what opponents are doing, they
think that others are doing what they are doing and thinking what they are
thinking," he says.
Findings like these emerge from a broader wave of research looking at the ways
in which we
calculate - and miscalculate - costs and benefits in making decisions, whether
it's a coach
choosing to go for it on fourth down or a head of state choosing to go to war.
And while the idea of defensive cheating emerges from a new model of how people
incentives, other research is looking at the complicated, sometimes conflicting
ways in which
we think about costs.
In particular, people seem willing in some cases to simply ignore the cost of
In a set of experiments carried out in 2005 by the economists Nina Mazar and
Dan Ariely, of
MIT, and On Amir, a marketing expert at the University of California at San
were given a timed test of general-knowledge questions and paid for each
They varied the setup of the experiment and found that people would tend to
given the chance, but that the risk of being discovered did not deter them.
Even more surprisingly,
the experimenters found a way to limit cheating that had nothing to do with the
threat of getting
When they asked subjects to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they
remember before taking the test, it virtually eliminated cheating.
Drake Bennett is a staff writer for the Ideas section of the Boston Globe,
where this article
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