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More PsychNotes: Personality

July 14, 2016       

When Do Good People Cheat? Or, Developing Compassion by Recognizing Your Flaws
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Not surprisingly, a state of physical deprivation can lead to violating personal moral beliefs if it reduces the physical distress. Research showed that when people had an opportunity to cheat without getting caught they were more likely to do so if they were hungry or thirsty and the reward was food or water. On the other hand, if the reward was not something that would reduce their physical discomfort, they were not more likely to cheat (Williams et al., 2016).

These researchers conducted their studies with the average consumer in a grocery store (hunger group) or with someone who had just worked out in a gym (thirsty group). The participants were not chronically deprived but were in a temporary state of hunger or thirst. If asked, most people say they would not violate their moral beliefs for small pay-offs. Yet, this research showed that minor physical need can cause a person to cheat to reduce their immediate discomfort.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this research:

1) Good intentions can be overridden by discomfort. For example, people who are on a diet are often told not to go to the grocery store when they are hungry because it is more difficult to resist bad choices. The violation of a moral principle of honesty may be justified by some people when it promises an immediate improvement in comfort level. “What does it matter if I cheat? It's not hurting anybody.”

2) Physical discomfort can be difficult to resist relieving immediately. This research was done with people who were in states of minor discomfort. Imagine how difficult it must be for people struggling with ongoing deprivation. If many of us have trouble resisting minor discomfort to the extent we are willing to cheat, what must it be like for those who are truly deprived?

3) Morality varies depending upon perspective. People often look down on others who don't behave according to society's standards and yet justify similar behavior of their own. However, compassion for the moral flaws of others comes from recognizing that most of us struggle with morality. We may strive to be moral but when simple things such as temporary hunger or thirst can affect our moral behavior, we need to recognize the difficulty of maintaining moral beliefs. When we can see our own flaws we may be less likely to hold others in contempt because they don't meet our standards. By doing so we can have greater compassion for those in chronic need.

Williams, E. F., Pizarro, D., Ariely, D., & Weinberg, J. D. (2016, May 5). The Valjean Effect: Visceral States and Cheating. Emotion. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1037/emo0000158

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