Conscience and consequences: The high stakes of getting caught in a web of lies (2023)

A respected athlete uses banned performance-enhancing drugs. Well-heeled parents claim their children are athletes to get them accepted into top-tier colleges. Five students turn in identical papers for a college assignment. A small business owner claims pandemic financial relief to retain make-believe workers. A biotech entrepreneur makes false claims about her company’s blood-testing technology, manipulating results rather than offering true data.

Those are real and recent examples of cheating. The variety of ways people take moral shortcuts is long, from grabbing credit for someone else’s work to claiming honors never received. Such dishonesty is rampant in sports, in games, at school, on taxes and in the workplace. People even cheat at the popular word game Wordle, where the only competition is oneself.

Cheaters who are caught may face consequences ranging from embarrassment to loss of respect to failing grades and even jail time. The risk-benefit assessment is frequently skewed. But nothing suggests that fewer people will attempt to game whatever system they’re trying to manipulate.

The question is: Why do people cheat?

Reasons galore

When Deseret News asked experts to explain the psychology of cheating, answers ranged from low self-esteem to a desire to get ahead. Money is a motive. So is prestige. Some cheat to prove they’re smart, others because they feel dumb. For a small percentage of people, cheating would be the choice even if it was harder than playing things straight. Some folks can’t seem to help themselves.

Beverly Hills psychotherapist Fran Walfish believes conscience lies at the heart of whether people cheat. But one needs the right balance to be healthy, she adds. Too much conscience can lead to a sense of guilt, resulting in a highly anxious person filled with self-doubt, says Walfish, author of “The Self-Aware Parent.” Too little conscience or guilt can foster a sociopath —“someone who does bad things and doesn’t feel remorse, guilt, shame or empathy about his or her actions,”she warns.

Walfish says some people make a habit of lying or cheating because they’ve gotten away with it before and gained an advantage.

Age may change the motivation to cheat, as well. Stefan Angelevski, a Rondo Coach youth soccer coach in Seattle, says he and his colleagues see young players ages 8 to 12 cheat to see how far they can push the coaches, referees and parents. “They feel like they’ve achieved something if they manage to get away with something, even if they can do that without cheating.” That’s easily nipped by a coach who’s paying attention, he says.

Older players cheat to gain unfair advantage, “which is just their competitive spirit,” he says. “They don’t have pleasure in doing the actual cheating, but they like to win.”

And some teens have a certain view of themselves and their own prowess. When that image is shattered, says Angelevski, “they may cheat to preserve the reputation that often only they think they have.” Add a new, faster player and “they fake injuries, they injure other people, they complain to the referees.”

There can also be a bystander effect, says psychologist Lachlan Brown, founder of Hack Spirit, which offers relationship advice. Studies show people are more likely to cheat if they see others doing it without facing consequences. “This creates a perception that cheating is socially acceptable,” he said.

Steve Carleton, licensed clinical social worker and executive clinical director at Gallus Detox, which has detox centers in western states, says cheating can even be about a temporary advantage. Politicians sometimes cheat by making false promises to win an election and renege on those promises once in office.

“I think one way of approaching this is to ask why anyone doesn’t cheat when anything important is on the line,” says Michael I. Blake, who teaches ethics, among other topics, as a University of Washington professor. “If I can gain some important advantage, what force does rule-following have against that?”

There are two answers, he says. Someone might value rules more than the outcome, which is why most politicians concede when they lose. “They’d rather not be in power than not have a functioning set of social norms,” he told Deseret News. The other possibility is “something about disrespecting others that gives me a reason not to cheat. If I’m playing golf or hunting Easter eggs, it might seem to me that if I cheat, I’m treating you badly in a process that's designed to give each of us an equal chance.”

Still, temptation might rise when something important is on the line — especially if one believes others might be cheating and treating you badly.

A notoriousexample of that made headlines worldwide a decade ago when students and their parents in China fought for the right to cheaton a college entrance test after it was banned. Yahoo reported the school had hired test monitors and the protesters were convinced that those at other schools would still cheat, disadvantaging them, so they “smashed cars and chanted” and someone decked a teacher.

Rami Saeed thinks the belief that others are cheating lets cheaters feel justified. Additionally, “the society we live in often values achievement over integrity, pushing people to cross ethical boundaries.”

If people believe the benefit outweighs potential costs, people are more likely to cheat, said Saeed, senior manager at, a platform to help entrepreneurs launch startups.

Peer pressure and ego

Lauren Cook-McKay, a licensed marriage and family therapist and vice president of marketing at Divorce Answers, says dishonesty boils down to self-interest or moral disengagement, which is rationalizing or justifying breaking rules.

“This happens due to social influences — when an individual observes other people engage in dishonesty, it can evoke feelings of envy, which results in collaborative dishonesty.”

Cook-McKay says personality traits are a huge factor, too. “An individual’s personality can affect how they perceive information and rationalize their decisions. Believe it or not, creativity traits can increase a person’s risk of resorting to dishonesty and their ability to justify the behavior.”

People with diminished control may also cheat. “When an individual is struggling with self-control, they’re more likely to resort to dishonesty in order to make sure the results of their action are in line with their standards and goals,” says Cook-McKay, who notes that’s not uncommon with athletes who’ve “worked tirelessly to reach and fulfill their goals.” People who see winning as part of their identity may take a risk to maintain that identity.

Another less-cited but real cause is exhaustion. Cook-McKay says “mental and physical depletion can make a person do whatever they want.”

“The people I have seen and caught cheating in college classes and as a law enforcement officer generally suffer from low self-esteem,” said Joseph Gutheinz of the Gutheinz law firm in Friendswood, Texas. He’s seen all kinds of cheats as a certified fraud examiner, a retired federal law enforcement officer and a criminal defense lawyer who has taught college.

Dr. Paul Daidone, medical director at True Self Recovery, which provides addiction and mental health treatment in Rogers, Arkansas, agrees lack of self-confidence or low self-esteem can drive cheating. So can unresolved issues or trauma from childhood, he says.

Some cheat because they feel that’s the only way they can keep up with or surpass peers. “They may feel they don’t measure up so they take the easy route and copy someone else’s work,” he said.

Financial gain can be a factor, “especially true in professional settings where cheating may be seen as a way to secure a promotion or advancement,” said Daidone. “Sometimes it’s indirect, like claiming credit for someone else’s works. Others cheat directly, tampering with records or data to increase their own pay or benefit financially.”


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Gutheinz’s examples include a successful, politically connected engineer working for a government agency. “He had everything going for him — great wealth, a profitable business and the respect of his community — but wanted more,” said Gutheinz, who added the man defrauded the agency for over a decade with multiple schemes — and wound up convicted on dozens of felonies. Guthienz also dealt with a fellow who masqueraded as an astronaut and a Medal of Honor recipient. “When I arrested him, he was clinging to that false identity so hard that he truly believed his own false persona,” he says.

Children’s author and college professor Janet R. Heller, of Portage, Michigan, sometimes saw students cheat when they had not done required reading or spent enough time to write a good research paper. “Some of these individuals are lazy, some do not have the self-discipline to get assignments done properly and some are compulsive liars,” she said by email. “Plagiarism on term papers varied from copying whole pages” from a scholarly book or Wikipedia to photocopying other students’ research papers and turning them in with the cheating student’s name on the title page.

Dishonesty is not always malicious. Licensed psychologist Gary Tucker of D’Amore Mental Health in Costa Mesa, California, said that students opt to plagiarize or cheat for different reasons, from “honest lack of knowledge” to “sinister motivations.” Besides wanting good grades and fear of failing, some procrastinate or have poor time management skills that lead to shortcuts, while others believe they won’t get caught or misunderstand policies around plagiarism, he says.

Moral identity, conscience or mental illness?

Aurora University explored the psychology of cheating. “Research about the role of moral identity and regret in cheating in sports has provided evidence that anticipated regret, counterfactual regret and moral identity are all significant factors in decisions about cheating. Researchers found that moral identity was associated with attitudes towards cheating through the mechanism of anticipated regret.”

Daidone said cheating is not itself a mental illness, but can indicate a personality disorder, especially if the person is unapologetic and doesn’t feel remorseful. “Those with narcissistic or antisocial personality disorders may be more likely to cheat without feeling guilt or shame.”

He said countering cheating “requires a supportive environment that promotes healthy competition and an open dialogue to identify the underlying causes so they can be addressed.” Some people benefit from working with a mental health professional to address underlying causes. And those who feel inadequate or insecure can benefit from resources and tools to help cope and build self-confidence, he adds.

Tucker refers to a study on cheating in sports published in the Baltic Journal of Sport and Health Sciences in which Lithuanian researchers concluded that moral identity is an important factor in whether people cheat or dope. Athletes with high moral values were less likely to, while goal-oriented athletes, who focused on winning rather than playing the sport, were more likely to be dishonest.

That same study found Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy — what researchers called the “dark triad” — increased cheating.

The study said that when parents and coaches create “an ego-oriented climate”, cheating increases. Social environment and an athlete’s personality both play a role.

Michelle English, a licensed clinical social worker who cofounded Healthy Life Recovery in San Diego, California, says highly competitive environments can put identity on display, so pressure to win spawns cheating. “Those who compete with an ego-oriented attitude toward success are more likely to engage in unethical behavior,” she said. Monitoring that is challenging “as it can bring both material and psychological rewards“ to participants.

Michelle Giordano is a sociologist, psychologist, counselor and outreach specialist for Live Another Day, connecting people to substance abuse, mental health and related resources.She emphasizes that “not all forms of cheating are equal and the reasons behind cheating can vary depending on context and situation.”

Cheating is global

There’s international evidence that it’s not just an American problem.

“Cheating is contagious,” reads a news release for a 2020 study by the Centre for Sociology of Higher Education in Russia that cites studies in multiple countries showing most students “have at least once committed academic fraud.” Students clearly know cheating is wrong, the study found, using six different types of logic to rationalize it.

A peer-reviewed study from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich showed that “lying comes more easily to people in teams” and “groups are more likely to behave unethically than individuals.” Folks egg each other on.

And researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel found “winning a competition predicts future dishonest behavior.” That’s spurred when success is measured by social comparison, the study in PNAS said.

Closer to home, researchers at the University of California San Diego found that children who have been lied to are more likely to lie and cheat themselves. The paper, published in the journal Developmental Science, says adult dishonesty impacts kids in unsavory ways.

High cost for society

Cheating is not a small thing, English told Deseret News. “Cheating robs students and athletes of fair competition; it erodes public trust in the justice system and it compromises the appearance of authority figures such as teachers and coaches. Furthermore, it can impair the goal of learning by undermining the purposeful environment in which students or athletes ought to be engaging with the material.”

Saeed is among experts citing erosion of trust as a major consequence of cheating. “Cheating creates an unfair environment and can lead to mistrust. It undermines the value of hard work and honesty, which are core to a functioning society. Plus, when cheating becomes rampant, it can lead to cynicism and a general disregard for rules.”

Happily, he adds, “There are plenty of folks who value integrity over success.”

In school settings, cheating results in “a decrease in standards for what is considered acceptable work and creating an unfair advantage over those who are honest and hardworking,” says Tucker. “In sports, it can foster a culture of cheating and devalue fair play and the pursuit of excellence. It also has the potential to damage the reputation and identity of a team or even an entire sport.”

Brown believes that meritocracy is undermined by cheating. When those who play by the rules lose out to cheaters, they may be discouraged from fair play. And ”normalization of cheating can lead to a society where dishonesty and unfair practices are tolerated or even rewarded,” with subsequent significant implications for society’s ethics and morals.

As Carleton puts it, people can become “jaded about their leaders and cynical about the systems that are meant to support them,” adding cheating can also “undermine the economy, perpetuating inequality and unfairness.”

Cheating in sports can rob honest players of their earned success and recognition. Cheating in elections can lead to mistrust, but also to “disruption of government services and less efficient use of public resources,” says Haley Hicks, licensed clinical social worker and vice president of admissions at BasePoint Academy, a teen and adolescent mental health treatment center in Dallas.

“People cheat because they want the easy way out; they want shortcuts to success,” said Hicks. “It may start as a seemingly harmless act, but it can quickly snowball into a dangerous habit. It may seem easier to cheat than to work hard and play by the rules, but in the end, it is more detrimental than it is beneficial. Not just for those who are caught, but for society as a whole.”

The solution, she adds, is “teaching people the value of hard work and honest competition.” There’s no substitute for that.

For Walfish, what’s most important between two people is to feel trust and security. Cheating kills that.


What are the consequences in this world of telling lies? ›

Some of the consequences of lying are:

1) You will lose the trust of people and when you lose the trust of others, you lose your value as a person. Nobody will believe you. 2) If someone lies to you and you find out, you will be hurt. So, you should understand that in the same token if you tell a lie, it hurts others.

What are the consequences of lies in society? ›

Lying has consequences. When someone finds out you have lied, it affects how that person deals with you forever. If your spouse lies, you may be able to work it out in therapy, but an employer is not likely to forgive. Even if you convince yourself a lie is OK, it still violates the dictates of conscience.

What are the dangers and consequences of dishonesty? ›

At the same time, lying can also create problems. Lying can be cognitively depleting, it can increase the risk that people will be punished, it can threaten people's self-worth by preventing them from seeing themselves as “good” people, and it can generally erode trust in society.

What are the consequences of deception? ›

Those changes lead to cognitive and emotional loads that impair the deceiver's ability to manage communication. Self-deception is an inevitable outcome of deception and, along with deception outcomes, alters the deceiver's sense of self and sense of reality.

What are the 5 consequences of dishonesty? ›

Consequences of Dishonesty:
  • It results into a loss of reputation. ...
  • A dishonest person will end up disgracing himself or herself. ...
  • A dishonest person may be imprisoned.
  • Dishonest people who run businesses may eventually lose their customers. ...
  • Dishonesty will lead to other vices such as lying, cheating ad stealing.
Apr 19, 2023

What is a natural consequence for lying? ›

[color-box] Natural and logical Consequences for lying: What stems naturally from a child lying is that it erodes trust between parent and child. Therefore, this can be easily explained to a child. To extend it further, a logical consequence would be removing freedoms that could erode trust further.

What are the personal and social consequences of dishonesty? ›

Specifically, we found that when people engage in dishonest behavior, they are less likely to see themselves as relational (for example, as a sister, friend, colleague or father) and are subsequently less accurate in judging the emotions of others.

What are the psychological effects of being lied to? ›

Being lied to makes you feel insecure – your version of the truth is discredited. It also makes you feel unimportant – the person lying to you didn't value you enough to tell the truth. Dishonesty is the erosion of all that is solid.

What are three consequences of dishonesty? ›

As a matter of fact, this can create psychological problems such as depression, severe anxiety, and a general sense of mistrust. A fake identity leads to alienation from families and friends. And a life of fakeness ultimately alienates you from yourself. As we all know, lies beget lies.

What are the psychological effects of living a lie? ›

When people live the lie, they are not being true to themselves. They are hiding from the reality of their situation and pretending that everything is okay when it isn't. This can be very damaging to our mental health, as it can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and depression.

What dishonesty does to your brain? ›

Brain imaging experiments conducted by Tali Sharot at University College London show that the brain adapts to dishonest behavior. Participants showed reduced activity in their limbic system as they told more lies, supporting the idea that each lie makes lying easier.

What are charges of deception? ›

Section 192E(1) makes it an offence for a person who, by any deception, dishonestly obtains property belonging to another or obtains a financial advantage or causes any financial disadvantage.

What are the consequences of dishonesty in the workplace? ›

Further, dishonesty may be grounds for a range of discipline. An employer may decide to demote, temporarily suspend, or take work or clients away from an employee as discipline. However, more serious consequences like getting fired, sued, losing your license, or facing criminal charges may be possible.

What are the consequences of telling the truth? ›

Regrettably, telling the truth is sometimes dangerous. Especially when it threatens long-standing understandings of how things are “supposed” to be. Telling the truth or uncovering lies can lead to a loss of friends, status, access to decision making or credibility.

What are some consequences for telling the truth? ›

Telling the truth or uncovering lies can lead to a loss of friends, status, access to decision making or credibility.

What was the punishment for lying? ›

A person convicted of perjury is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years, or to a fine, or to both. In the United States, the general perjury statute under federal law classifies perjury as a felony and provides for a prison sentence of up to five years.

What is the moral problem in telling lie? ›

Lies are morally wrong, then, for two reasons. First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Each lie I tell contradicts the part of me that gives me moral worth. Second, my lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally.

What is the sin of telling lies? ›

One of the Ten Commandments is "thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour"; for this reason, lying is generally considered a sin in Christianity. The story of Naboth in 1 Kings 21 provides an example where false witness leads to an unjust outcome.

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