Maybe Cheaters Prosper After All

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The world seems to be awash in teensy little pieces of social science research that are (1) possibly fascinating but (2) also possibly meaningless. Roberto Ferdman points us to one today that suggests winning makes you more likely to cheat in the future. The participants, as usual, are a small number of university students.

Our eager young test monkeys were broken into pairs and then competed in a task. The winners were determined randomly, though the participants didn’t know that. Then they went on to round 2, where they threw a pair of dice. The details are unimportant except for these: (1) the higher the throw the better, and (2) it was pretty easy to cheat since no one could see the dice except the thrower. The chart on the right shows the basic result. The average throw should be 7, and in the control group that’s what it was. In the test group, winners obviously cheated since their average throw was much higher than 7. Losers either didn’t cheat or, possibly, actually underreported their throws a bit.

Why? Who knows. The authors suggest that winning creates a sense of psychological entitlement, but: “We do not claim that a sense of entitlement is the only factor that accounts for dishonest behavior following a competition. Given the complexity of the situation under study and the variety of mechanisms that drive dishonest behavior, it is likely that other mechanisms also come into play.”

So…maybe this is interesting. Maybe it’s meaningless. Maybe the authors should have run this experiment a dozen times to see if the results hold up. I’m not sure. However, it seems perfectly suited for drawing sweeping conclusions about the American psyche1—maybe David Brooks can do something with this?—and that alone makes it worth writing about.

1Shhh. Don’t tell anyone the study was done at an Israeli university.

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THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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