The Rich Cheat for Themselves, the Poor Cheat for Others

My grandfather was fond of saying that nobody wins when someone cheats, but I’d have to disagree with him. The guy who cheats wins. He shouldn’t win, and I don’t like that he wins, but there you go. But who’s more likely to cheat: rich people or poor people?

According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Science, it’s slightly more complicated than that: people with higher socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to cheat when cheating benefits themselves, but people with lower SES are more likely to cheat when it benefits others.

Researchers arranged an experiment with 151 participants, who had their social class determined via a survey. They then played a computer-based dice rolling game. The goal was to achieve a total of more than fourteen from rolling a die five times, and participants were told that winners would be entered into a lottery for a real $50 gift card. However, the virtual die rolls were programmed to always add up to twelve. Participants were not monitored and self-reported, so anyone who reported something aside from twelve was obviously lying (or very bad at math).

Participants were split into two groups. The first was told they’d win the gift card for themselves. The second group participants had to give the name and email address of another person who’d receive the card if they won the game.

The result? Higher-class people were more likely to cheat if the card was for themselves. Lower-class people were more likely to cheat if the card went to someone else.

To see the role of power in cheating, researchers arranged another experiment with 122 new participants, some told they were a ‘boss’ and some told they were an ‘employee’. Everyone was told that the computer would randomly assign a task. Tasks could be boring and repetitive, in which case the computer would indicate a one on the screen, or a fun, creative task, in which case the computer would indicated a two on the screen. One group of participants was told that they’d be doing this task themselves (the ‘employees’). The other group was told that the task would be for the next person.

However, after the researcher left the room after giving instructions, the computer screen would display a one and then freeze, showing no number. Thus, when the researcher returned and asked what the number was, anyone saying ‘two’ would be a guaranteed liar. And, as it turns out, people who were ‘bosses’ were more likely to lie for themselves (e.g., “Oh, yeah, it says two here. Guess I’d better get started on that fun thing and skip the boring thing.”), whereas ‘employees’ were more likely to lie for others (e.g., “Yep, two. Have the next guy skip lickin’ envelops.”).

All that said, it’d be wise to take this study with a grain of salt. After all, results just show likelihood to cheat—there’s no guarantee that the next rich guy you meet is looking to screw you over. That said, it’s more than petty that people would cheat over a $50 gift card. If they’d cheat over something so small, what will they do when the stakes are higher?



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