Study Finds People Cheat Because They Have Increased Levels Of This

Proof that narcissism isn't the ONLY cause of cheating.

Study Finds People Cheat Because Of Increased Hormone Levels Getty 

As if getting cheaters to take responsibility for their actions wasn't difficult enough, science has come up with an explanation as to why people cheat, and do the other bad things they do.

Cheaters and others with bad behavior can't help it; it's because of hormonal reactions. Yes, research suggests that higher levels of testosterone and cortisol encourage cheating, as well as other unethical behavior.


A study from Harvard University and the University of Texas, Austin found that testosterone and cortisol work together to help someone commit an unethical act. First, the hormone levels increase (predicting the probability of cheating) and then they change to reinforce the behavior.

"Although the science of hormones and behavior dates back to the early 19th century, only recently has research revealed just how powerful and pervasive the influence of the endocrine system is on human behavior," said Robert Josephs, a UT Austin professor of psychology.

Testosterone is the chemical responsible for sex drive and muscle growth in men, while cortisol (which is released in times of stress) is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.


In the study, the researchers asked 117 participants to take a math test. When they were finished, they were asked to grade their tests themselves and say how many problems they answered correctly. The researchers conducting the study encouraged the participants to cheat by telling them that the more problems they got right, the more money they would earn.

Yes, the researchers set up the participants to cheat.

The researchers then collected salivary samples from the participants after they took the test, finding that those who had higher levels of testosterone and cortisol were more likely to lie about how many problems they got correct.

"Elevated testosterone decreases the fear of punishment while increasing sensitivity to reward. Elevated cortisol is linked to an uncomfortable state of chronic stress that can be extremely debilitating. Testosterone furnishes the courage to cheat and elevated cortisol provides a reason to cheat," Josephs said. 


Those who cheated said they experienced a reduction in stress after the test — as if cheating gave the participants feelings of relief.

"The stress reduction is accompanied by a powerful stimulation of the reward centers in the brain, so these physiological, psychological changes have the unfortunate consequence of reinforcing the unethical behavior," Josephs said.

Great! Cheating and doing things that are wrong make some people feel good.

Now that researchers have a better understanding of what happens when unethical behavior is concerned, they hope to explore how to eliminate this hormonal response and its reinforcement.


Because the researchers didn't see a similar response when these hormones acted separately of one another, they believe that lowering levels of both testosterone and cortisol could potentially prevent cheating.