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Study Finds Cheating for Monetary Gain is a Character Trait

A new study answers the question of whether cheating is a product of circumstances or a character trait.

To do this, researchers at Texas A&M University and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute looked at cheating during periods of economic abundance and scarcity to see if cheating for monetary gain is a product of the economic environment.

What they discovered is that cheating is more likely caused by an individual’s propensity to cheat than external factors.

Famous criminals’ propensity for cheating has been attributed to their circumstances and being a product of an impoverished upbringing, according to Dr. Marco Palma, director of the Human Behavior Lab at Texas A&M University and a professor in the department of agricultural economics.

To test this theory, the researchers selected a remote community in Guatemala for a field experiment to help determine whether scarcity or impoverished situations truly influence a person’s propensity to cheat and lie.

According to Palma, the experiment gave participants the opportunity to cheat without any repercussions. They were tested both during times of scarcity and relative abundance.

The village where the experiment was held relied solely on coffee production for the villagers’ livelihood. That creates an abundance period during the five months when coffee is harvested weekly. Scarcity was tested during the seven months of no harvest and no income.

For the experiment, participants were given a cup and dice and asked to roll the dice with the cup. Depending on the number rolled, participants received monetary compensation for filling out a survey. If a one was rolled, the participant received five quetzales, which is a little bit less than a dollar. Rolling a two paid 10 quetzales, a three paid 15 quetzales, and so on. Rolling a six received nothing. Participants were asked to roll the dice twice by shaking the cup.

“The first time is the one that counts, and then they shake it again so nobody else sees what they rolled,” Palma said. “So now people have an opportunity to cheat in order to increase their earnings. We did this in the scarcity period and again in the abundance period.”

By even distribution, each number should be rolled about one-sixth of the time, he said.

“If you look at the high paying numbers, there are three numbers out of six. So, 50 percent of the time they should report a high payoff and 50 percent of the time a low payoff,” he said. “We find that they reported about 90 percent of high numbers during scarcity and about 90 percent in abundance. So, there was no change in cheating across the two periods.”

“This tells us there is no real change for the propensity to cheat during scarcity and abundance,” he explained. “Meaning, this is more like an inner characteristic of an individual.”

The second part of the experiment gave people the opportunity to cheat for someone in their village, the “in-group,” like a family member or friend, and increase their monetary benefit.

“In general, people cheat for the in-groups, but at a lower rate than they would for themselves. And this doesn’t really change across the scarcity and abundance conditions,” he said.

Next, they were given the opportunity to cheat for a stranger, the “out-group,” someone outside of the community.

“During the abundance period, people did not cheat for the out-group,” Palma said. “In other words, if it is somebody who is outside of the group, the level they reported for the high payoffs was exactly 50 percent, which is the expectation. But during the scarcity period, the gap between the in-group and the out-group was closed. All of a sudden people started cheating for the out-group at the same rate as they did for the in-group.”

According to Palma, the participants’ willingness to cheat during scarcity was unexpected. During the scarcity period, the boundaries of the in-group and out-group disappear not only because people are willing to incur a moral cost, but they are also willing to incur monetary costs by giving the same amount of money to both groups.

“This experiment helped bridge the gap between the lab and the real world, and we can inform policy makers and make accurate predictions of how humans will react under different types of environments,” Palma said.

According to Dr. Billur Aksoy, an assistant professor of economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, these findings appear to be universal.

“In our experiment, we did not find any significant impact of scarcity on cheating behavior when the beneficiaries were the subjects themselves,” she said. “In a recent unpublished study, titled ‘Poverty negates the impact of social norms on cheating,’ other researchers also reach the same conclusion in their experiment with rice farmers in Thailand. This suggests that our findings are not exclusive to Guatemalan coffee farmers, but, of course, there is more research that needs to be done in order to better understand this phenomenon. In fact, a study conducted in 23 countries highlights very little differences in cheating behavior across the countries. ”

Source: Texas A&M University

Study Finds Cheating for Monetary Gain is a Character Trait

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2019). Study Finds Cheating for Monetary Gain is a Character Trait. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Aug 2019 (Originally: 16 Aug 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 15 Aug 2019
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