It turns out even honest people cheat

Some people might believe that an honest person would never cheat, but as it turns out that’s not true.

It’s definitely more surprising when someone you consider to be honest is found to have cheated, whether that’s on their partner, in their careers, or for another form of personal gain.

Now, new research has shed some light on what’s going on in the brain of a usually honest person, which may cause them to cheat.

While it is generally assumed that the amount of “willpower” a person has can impact their decision to do something dishonest, new research, from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), has revealed that willpower, (aka “cognitive control” in psychology speak), does not serve the same purpose for everyone.

A new study has shed light on why honest people cheat. (Image posed by model, Getty Images)
A new study has shed light on why honest people cheat. (Image posed by model, Getty Images)

In fact, the results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), revealed cognitive control actually enables cheating for people who are typically honest, while at the same time facilitating honest decisions for serial cheaters.

“Surprisingly, we found that for honest participants, more cognitive control was needed to cheat, whereas for participants who cheated frequently, control was needed in order to be honest,” explains PhD candidate Sebastian Speer, lead author of the paper.


In other words, if you normally have a good moral compass, it will take a cognitive effort to cheat, while those who think nothing of bending the rules will have to work super hard not to cheat.

So, it isn’t just willpower (or lack of) involved in a decision to cheat, but also a person’s moral default.

To uncover these cheating revelations, researchers used an MRI scanner to analyse how different areas of the brain promote cheating or honesty.

The research team used a visual search task to measure cheating, with participants shown pairs of images and told there were always three differences between the image pairs. However, in reality the differences were not always present.

That means if participants pointed out three differences between the pairs, when there were actually only one or two, researchers knew they had lied.

The greater the reward for spotting the three differences, the greater was the temptation to lie.

Why do generally honest people cheat? (Image posed by models, Getty Images)
Why do generally honest people cheat? (Image posed by models, Getty Images)

The team also discovered that a region in the brain often associated with the processing of reward, was more strongly activated for cheaters during the decision-making process.

Meanwhile, generally honest people showed higher activity in a network of regions related to what study authors refer to as self-referential thinking, which is described by as the thought process characterised by continually relating material to one’s self.

“These findings speak to the age-old question of whether people are at their core moral or immoral,” Professor Maarten Boksem explains. “The answer, it turns out, is ‘it depends’: individuals are distributed along a continuum ranging from extremely honest, to dishonest.

“Cheaters must exert willpower to override their greedy tendencies to be honest, while honest people need to inhibit their honesty to occasionally profit from small lies. Thus, the role of willpower depends on a person’s moral default.”

The research team hopes that a better understanding of the different neurocognitive processes contributing to honesty or dishonesty in different individuals could be used to develop strategies to reduce dishonesty and strengthen trust in society.

Additional reporting by Marie Claire Dorking.

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