A new study from Israel finds that people who win a competition are more likely to cheat or act dishonestly in the future.
Researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have published their findings online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We already know that some politicians and business executives will often resort to unethical means to win, for example the recent Volkswagen scandal,” said Dr. Amos Schurr.
“Our research was focused on who is more likely to subsequently engage in unrelated unethical behaviors, winners or losers?”
The researchers found that after a competition is over, winners behave more dishonestly than losers in an unrelated subsequent task. Furthermore, the subsequent unethical behavior effect seems to depend on winning, rather than on mere success.
Researchers conducted five studies with students in Israel. The first two studies demonstrated that winning a competition increases the likelihood of winners to steal money from their counterparts in a subsequent unrelated task.
The third and fourth study demonstrated that the effect holds only when winning means performing better than others, but not when success is determined by chance or in reference to a personal goal.
The last study, a post-competition survey, suggested that winners felt a sense of entitlement after besting their opponents in the initial competition, which the researchers say explains why they were more likely to cheat in the second contest.
Researchers believe the subsequent unethical behavior effect seems to depend on winning, rather than on mere success.
“These findings suggest that the way in which people measure success affects their honesty. When success is measured by social comparison, as is the case when winning a competition, dishonesty increases,” Schurr said.
“When success does not involve social comparison, as is the case when meeting a set goal, defined standard or recalling a personal achievement, dishonesty decreases.”
The study findings may suggest our hyper-competitive cultural climate could harm society and that remedial interventions are necessary.
The researchers concluded that, “It is difficult to overstate the importance of competition in advancing economic growth, technological progress, wealth creation, social mobility, and greater equality. At the same time, however, it is vital to recognize the role of competition in eliciting censurable conduct.
“A greater tendency toward unethicality by winners is likely to impede social mobility and equality, exacerbating disparities in society rather than alleviating them. Finding ways to predict and overcome these tendencies may be a fruitful topic for the future study.”