Winners Become Cheaters

After besting their opponents, winners become more likely to cheat.
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(Photo: Randy Miramontez/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Randy Miramontez/Shutterstock)

Winners don't gloat, abstain from drugs, and, according to a recent book, they never cheat—except for guys like Lance Armstrong, Rod Blagojevich, and Walter Keane. They were all cheaters, and all winners (well, until they got caught). Why did they cheat? Perhaps there's something addictive about winning—but in any case, winning makes us feel more entitled and more likely to cheat, a new study finds.

"Honesty and dishonesty can affect the chances of winning a competition, but is an opposite causal relationship also possible? Namely, does beating a rival generate subsequent (dis)honest behavior?" write psychologists Amos Schurr and Ilana Ritov. In a series of experiments, they show the answer is yes, partly because winners feel more entitled.

There were hints that competition winners thought they were entitled to future wins.

The first experiment, which featured 86 undergraduate students, was designed to test how winning affected honesty. To start, the students were paired up and shown a number of objects on a computer screen for 2.5 seconds, after which each was supposed to estimate how many objects they'd seen. The students were told that whoever's estimate was closest would be declared the winner and receive a prize. (In fact, for technical reasons, the researchers named a winner at random.)

Next, each person threw two dice, and were told they could collect money in an amount corresponding to the number that came up on the dice. (If the dice came up two and three, for example, they'd be entitled to five shekels, or about $1.25 at the time the experiments were conducted.) However, it was up to participants to report what numbers they rolled, meaning it was easy to cheat. If everyone's being honest, the average number should be seven; if participants report larger numbers, it's a sign someone's cheating.

Winning the estimation contest, it turned out, made students dishonest. Winners claimed 8.75 shekels on average, 1.75 more than if they were all being honest and 1.62 more than a control group of 23 students that performed only the dice-throwing task, not the estimation throwdown.

Follow-up experiments suggest it was really beating an opponent that made the difference. For example, winners who knew they'd been chosen at random (winners in the first experiment thought they'd beaten someone in a competition) actually requested an average of six shekels, one fewer than they were likely entitled to.

Most importantly, there were hints that competition winners thought they were entitled to future wins and therefore justified cheating. That was best demonstrated by a survey in which Schurr and Ritov asked 100 students to imagine either a time when they'd won a competition or a time when they'd achieved a goal. Then, each filled out a questionnaire to determine their level of personal entitlement. Those who thought about a competition scored about 16 percent higher on the entitlement scale.

In other words, competition winners are more likely to think they deserve more, and are therefore more likely to cheat in the future—although that sense of entitlement is probably only one of many contributing factors, the authors write.

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