The psychology behind why people cheat - Sovereign Health Group
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03-24-16 Category: Mental Health


We live in a society built on virtue. We strive to do good unto others by being honest and portraying altruism. As children, we are told not to lie, cheat or steal, so what causes people to stray from these morals? Is it an impulse, a subconscious decision or logic? Almost everyone can agree that cheating is not only wrong, but it can cause a lot of hurt among many people. There are different forms of cheating, from being unfaithful in a romantic relationship to stealing answers for a test to obtain a higher academic grade. By exploring the different types of cheating and understanding the mechanisms involved in each type of cheating, as a society we can hopefully understand the importance of being honest.

Cheating in academics

Academic cheating is one of the earliest forms of cheating an individual will partake in. From cheating on homework and standardized examinations to plagiarizing term papers, there are many forms of academic cheating. Elementary school children have been known to cheat on homework or tests, and this behavior becomes more prolific during high school and college when the academic pressures rise.

The pressure we put on children to perform well in school may be the driving force as to why cheating occurs at an early age. This pressure is dictated by parents, teachers, higher education institutions and the internal pressure to be the best. Class rankings, valedictorians and academic college scholarships are driving forces to compete with one another and can potentially lead to the immorality of cheating.

Studies have shown that people who cheat believe that they will never get caught. It also has been shown that students cheat when they not only feel intense pressure but also when they are emotionally or physically tired.

One possible reason for why students cheat on standardized exams is because they are scheduled for early Saturday mornings when students are the most sleep deprived. This also holds true for adults who are sleep deprived in a work environment.

Cheating in relationships

Cheating on a significant other while in a relationship is one of the deepest forms of betrayal. Physical infidelity and emotional infidelity can occur for many reasons: The individual is a poor judge of character, or the individual is unhappy with the relationship and does not know how to express this in a mature way. Regardless of the reason, cheating on a significant other can cause deep-rooted, long-lasting damage to both individuals involved.

Physical infidelity refers to the intimate physical act of cheating on a partner, whereas emotional infidelity is not as black and white. Emotional infidelity may be hard to spot because it does not involve any physical sexual acts, but rather fosters emotional intimacy with a person of the opposite sex.

“Many people maintain secret or semi-secret friendships when there is a clear mutual interest or attraction, while others may not be interested but encourage others’ interest in them for the sake of boosting their own ego or distracting themselves from a sense of boredom with their partner.”

Why people cheat

Rationalization and self-reinforcement are two proven theories as to why people cheat, either in their relationship, or in school or at work. When individuals cheat, they often try to rationalize it by stating that they were under extreme pressure or were unhappy, that it didn’t really hurt anyone, or they will give other reasons to rationalize this dishonest act. This theory of rationalization can often lead to self-reinforcement.

We rationalize our cheating behavior, repeat these dishonest ways and eventually end up in a perpetual cycle of cheating, rationalizing and self-reinforcing behavior. It is important to prevent this cycle, and studies have showed that actively recognizing morals and being aware that we are always being watched by someone has decreased cheating. As a friend, family member and citizen of society, it is important to maintain this moral code and hold others responsible for their actions as this can potentially prevent unfaithful behavior.

The Sovereign Health Group is a leading behavioral health treatment provider with locations across the United States that treat people with addictions, mental illnesses, eating disorders and co-occurring conditions. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at the Sovereign Health Group and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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