Goldman Sachs, Tim Floyd, Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire, Enron.
Jayson Blair, Marion Jones, Bernie Madoff, Bill Belichick.
And now Rich Rodriguez?
Cheating is as much a part of our lives as scotch tape and ATM’s.
In a world of soundbites and gotcha-journalism, where philosophies are written in Tweet, and self-interest is a dominant social more, why are we still pretending that cheating is something we have distaste for?
We want cheating.
We love cheating.
Pretending we do not is just that.
This is not simple cynicism.
Studies—like those published by behavioral economist Dan Ariely—attest to our appetites for cheating, and the lengths to which we all participate in doing so.
“We all have a fudge-factor,” he writes. “We all cheat a little bit, and still feel good about ourselves.”
That limit—the point at which we no longer feel good about ourselves after cheating—varies little from person to person, and is not so much influenced by a personal morality as it is by the type of people we associate ourselves with.
Ariely’s experiments have shown how a simple sweatshirt affects the limits to which people cheat.
A group of students—all from the same college—were assembled and administered a fairly simple math test. They were told they would be paid for each correct answer. The test was not hard, but it was lengthy.
When an actor wearing a sweatshirt from the same university as the other students taking the test proclaimed to have finished the test seconds after receiving it—obviously cheating—the rates of cheating among the group rose on the whole.
When an actor was wearing a sweatshirt from a university rival to the other students did the exact same thing, the rates of cheating went down.
Cheating, in other words, relies not so much on who we are, but on how we view ourselves in terms of group identity.
An Outdated Definition of Cheating
Historically, a person’s decision to cheat has been expressed as a cost-benefit analysis:
What is the reward for cheating?
What is the probability of getting caught?
What is the punishment if I do get caught?
Changing the values for answers to those three questions should also change the probability rates of a person’s decision to cheat in linear manner. However, Ariely’s work has shown that increasing the value of reward does not increase the rates of cheating; people still cheat “just enough to still feel good about themselves.”
Ariely’s results run counter to those who argue that the large sums of money to be made by college coaches are encouraging them to skirt the rules.
It is intuitive to latch onto the idea of economic gain being the greatest determinant of a person’s decision to cheat because it is the easiest to understand. Additionally, it is easy to frame the morality of the question in simple terms:
“What would you do for a few million dollars?”
Would you pad an expense report?
Would you lie on your resume?
Would you practice your team a little longer than the rulebook says?
Would you call a recruit when you were not supposed to?
We like the argument of money as motivator because of its simplicity:
We can quantify the reason and rationalize the act.
But it is just not true.
Nor does increasing the likelihood of getting caught deter people from cheating.
People cheat within the same margin and to the same extent no matter the probability of getting caught.
Again, the only applied factor that yielded any difference in probabilities stemmed from others in the group cheating as well.
We are more likely to cheat when we see others cheating, and the rates move even higher when we want to be associated with the type of people doing so.
So there is some truth to the thought that some coaches will cheat because they see or believe other coaches are cheating, but it is more likely that coaches will cheat when they believe doing so will couple their image—for lack of better phrasing—to those of more successful coaches.
[Insert Lane Kiffin joke here.]
The changing face of cheating in academic life supports this.
Academic fraud—plagiarism, shared work, fabricated results—has been steadily increasing over the last 50 years.
At the beginning of that timeline, a cheater was most likely to be a student struggling to comprehend and complete assignments. Recent studies have shown that it is now more likely that a cheating student is an above-average student, but not quite top-of-the-class caliber.
Very simply, we will cheat when we want to be viewed by others as a particular type of person—most often successful—and we cannot garner that through honest means.
While the net gains of cheating are often used as justifications, they do not factor much as far as motivations go.
And before you start bemoaning modern American youth and their perceived lack of ethical standards, revisit the group listed at the top of the article and start looking for people under the age of thirty.
What lessons has the group actually taught?
Belichick—when defending Spygate—stated that he was unclear as to the NFL rules preventing the taping of opposing teams’ signals, even though he has been working in the NFL since 1975.
He got to keep his job.
The ink on Tim Floyd’s resume was barely dry when UTEP hired him as their new head basketball coach.
Mark McGwire admitted PED use and suits up every game as the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting coach.
If there is one thing we have learned—consciously or not—it is much better to cheat than to lose.
Cheaters find new jobs.
Losers do not.
Why is it so hard to punish cheaters?
The final part of the classic cost-benefit analysis—what is the punishment for getting caught?—shows no more corollary to intuitive thinking than the other parts of the equation.
Despite our best legislative efforts—e.g., Third Strike Laws and Capital Punishment—there is plenty of research telling us that increasing levels of punishment for illegal or immoral acts has little effect on decisions to commit them.
However, unlike policies intended to moderate violent crime, modern attempts to curb growing rates of cheating are based on ineffective socio-psychology and grounded in bureaucratic rehabilitationism.
AKA, Sliding Scales.
Studies have shown that punitive policies—like the NCAA’s determination between secondary and major violations—that regard cheating with varying degrees of severity and punish accordingly actually encourage more cheating.
The Sliding Scale idea is a bogus Jedi-mind trick that claims to be effective because—in theory—major cheaters are more active minor cheaters as well, and a high frequency of minor cheating will identify those who would be major cheaters as well.
That may work when studying fat kids and their relationships to candy bars, but there is nothing in the evidence that says such policies identify cheaters.
To continue the analogy, the first thing a parent or doctor does to take weight off a child is to restrict their caloric intake. Specifically, they take away the foods that the child craves most.
What does the NCAA do?
They issue stern statements, impose an unenforceable sanction—reducing the number of phone calls or something similar—and, like a bad parent, try to levy guilt.
Lane Kiffin’s public contempt for secondary violations has been derided, but Kiffin knows—at least in practice—the truth about Sliding Scale policies:
They don’t mean a damn thing.
Studies show that policies that look at acts of cheating with different moral values produce a higher rate of high value incidents than policies that do not appropriate value.
As long as the NCAA continues to look at cheating through lenses that filter acts into a spectrum of relative abuse—much like a prism does to white light—we should expect cheating to not just continue, but also to increase.
Coaches do not cheat for the money, or the fame, or any other self-interest.
They cheat because they know something the NCAA is yet to figure out:
Cheaters prosper and they can all get another job.
Until the NCAA—or any other institution tasked to curb fraud—changes that dynamic, they are just pretending to hate cheating too.
Jeb Williamson covers Ole Miss Football as a Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report. He appreciates and welcomes all comments. Click here to view a list of his other articles.