In terms of short-term benefits to one’s reputation, or monetary benefits, the illusion of deceit is intoxicating. But, in the long run, both from an individual and a social perspective, the negative effects of deceitful behaviours should be convincing enough in order to deter any and all from engaging in them.

Over the years, in Romania, there have been numerous complaints to Police Departments from a number of people deceived through the “car crash” method. According to investigators, the fraudsters contacted random people by phone, claiming to be lawyers, judicial bodies, or close relatives of the “victims”. The story they were going for was that a family member of the people they called had been involved in a car accident that resulted in serious bodily injury, so they demanded money to give “compensation to the victims of the accident in order for them to not press charges”.

In terms of short-term benefits, the illusion of deceit is intoxicating.

Another method of fraud is when a “social security official” informs victims by telephone that their pension benefits have been suspended, and in exchange for adjusting their financial situation, they must wire large sums of money by postal order. “Job offers in Spain” is another scam that starts with an ad like: “Jobs in Spain. Only for hardworking people. Call us at…” Those who call will only be the victims of scammers who ask them for documents and money for alleged employment formalities.

Through the “Loverboy” method, the victim, usually female, ends up going abroad, believing that she will work as a babysitter or that she will get married and, in reality, the alleged boyfriend, who exploits the victim’s emotional attachment, forces her into prostitution. The latest method which has emerged involves scammers claiming that they work at a charity that helps vulnerable children and ask the victims for donations. The list of scam methods is intriguingly long.

Why are we so easy to fool?

The “car crash” method relies on shock and fear. Usually, the people deceived by this method are elderly people who do not question the intentions of those around them or those of strangers, thus being easier to overwhelm. The apparent fundraising campaigns target the altruism and empathy that people show in extreme situations, when their peers are suffering. Other methods, such as the “Nigerian Prince”, are based on arousing interest through the illusion of gain.

In short, the art of scamming boils down to compassion, fear, or interest in a particular topic.

All these are basic psychological processes that allow the scammers to have access to a broad spectrum of victims, according to Marc Wilson, a psychologist at Victoria University School. In any case, those who resort to such deception methods not only survey the weaknesses of different people, but also develop various techniques to successfully carry out their plan: they know what to say, when to say it, and they exploit and manipulate people’s weak spots.

Why do we deceive others?

Out of a desire to “win at all costs”, as cyclist Lance Armstrong later argued, he put his reputation at stake. At the 2000 Tour de France, he tested positive for doping. Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser, who wrote the article “Costs of Deception: Cheaters Are Punished”, is currently out of work, after admitting to fabricating data and falsifying the results of several experiments.

More than 1,300 out of 1,800 students at nine US universities admitted to cheating on tests and written papers, according to a 2007 study by Donald McCabe and Klebe Treviño, professors at Rutgers University and Pennsylvania. The reason? Because this behavior was being promoted by other colleagues, and normative support for cheating was provided. Moreover, honest students feel disadvantaged when others choose to cheat.

Fear of losing one’s current position in academia, pressure, and competition for research grants add to the set of reasons why people choose to cheat.

This conclusion is supported by the results of two studies on non-compliance with the rules of empirical research over the last three years of work: the study of sociologist Brian Martinson of the Health Partners Research Foundation, USA, and the study of Ferric C. Fang and his collaborators, conducted in 2013. To the above is added the fear of losing money, reputation, or one’s entire career, according to a study by Leslie K. John, George F. Loewenstein and Scott Rick, professors at universities in the United States.

However, we don’t deceive others only for personal reasons, such as the examples mentioned at the beginning, but also because we often imitate the behaviours of others. The reason is simple: the fact that some people get away with it when they cheat can become a good enough reason to adopt such a behaviour; if the others don’t suffer any consequences, why wouldn’t I do it, too?

If the others don’t suffer any consequences, why wouldn’t I do it, too?

To support this idea, the conclusions of a study conducted by psychologists Agata Blachnio and Malgorzata Weremko, at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, come into play. Students who took a language exam in a supposedly unsupervised room and were asked not to use the dictionaries on the exam tables, violated this instruction when they noticed that one of their colleagues (in reality a study assistant) used the materials provided. The same behaviour is activated while waiting for the green colour at the stop light. It’s enough for one person to cross on red in order for other people to follow suit.

Everyone cheats, but in different ways

First of all, people cheat almost immediately when circumstances are favourable. This is the conclusion reached by Dan Ariely and his colleagues, who conducted an experiment in 2008, at Duke University, in the United States. The researchers asked study participants to solve math exercises and those who got the highest scores were rewarded with money.

Two experimental conditions were created: one in which the students’ honesty in communicating the number of solved exercises was verified and another in which the supervisor, purportedly, could not catch them cheating. In the latter situation, it was observed that the problem-solving score increased significantly compared to the first situation. Even though all the students cheated, their limits were “reasonable”. An average of six correct answers was reported instead of four, although the reported score could have been a maximum of 20 correct answers.

It’s not just creativity that influences the acts of fraud.

The motivations for such behaviour can be identified by taking into account two aspects: guilt and drawing attention to oneself. On the one hand, the more we cheat, the greater (allegedly) the feeling of guilt and vice versa. On the other hand, students may have cheated within reasonable limits so as to not draw attention to themselves (since their correctness in communicating correctly solved problems was not verified).

Secondly, not everyone is willing to cheat to the same extent. People who score high on psychological creativity tests are more likely to engage in dishonest behaviour, according to Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino in a 2011 study. The explanation is that creative people justify their actions in an inventive way, which makes them feel better in relation to the actions they take.

It’s not just creativity that influences the acts of fraud. It seems that gender affiliation is also responsible for the proportion in which people engage in acts of deception. At least these are the conclusions reached by researchers in the United States, Ferric Fang, Arturo Casadevall and Joan Bennett, after analysing 228 cases of fraud that took place in academia between 1994 and 2012.

Although deviations occur at all levels of the academic hierarchy, students or teachers, men have a higher score than women in terms of intellectual fraud in academia.

While one of the motivations behind intellectual fraud is career advancement, as evidenced by a study conducted in 2012 by Donald Kornfeld, a professor at Columbia University, even so, no clear reasons as to why men are more prone to such behaviour have been identified.

Preventative methods

The methods of promoting ethical culture require a multi-pronged approach to preventing and combating acts of deception. Having courses about the costs and implications of questionable moral acts both in schools and at work would help reduce dishonest attempts. The same outcome is also obtained through a modification of the reward system, in order to recognize teamwork and collaboration, the sanctioning of those who deviate from moral norms in accordance with the acts committed, and the existence of systems for detecting deception methods.

A pragmatic solution would be to sign a pledge not to resort to fraud.

The case of Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser, who was tempted to falsify the results of his research, could have been avoided if academics were not dependent on special funds for research. In order to avoid this situation, either individual reward systems can be introduced, which strengthen the individual’s sense of security and appreciation at work, or reward systems at group level, expressed through the appreciation of the team.

A pragmatic solution would be to sign a pledge not to resort to fraud. Taking such action seems to significantly reduce dishonest acts, as Dan Ariely points out in “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone. Especially Ourselves”. An individual commitment made public will be more respected by people because of the repercussions of violating that this may have. Before writing their bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral theses, students sign a document pledging not to plagiarize. The same goes for writers and researchers who will later publish their studies.

Normally, the anticipation of shame, as a negative emotion, should make individuals avoid those behaviours that would put them in an unfavourable light, thus helping to ensure the moral conformity necessary for any society to exist.

The real problem arises when individuals know the rules they must follow and still violate them.

A common case in this regard is that of drivers who pay various tickets. They admit that they have exceeded the speed limit, but may not feel guilty because they consider that these restrictions are imposed arbitrarily, only to take money from citizens, not having relevance for traffic safety. The same can be said for those who deceive their victims with the promise of getting them a job abroad in exchange for a certain amount of money.

These situations are the most delicate ones, because you cannot appeal to the anticipation of subsequent feelings of guilt or shame that the perpetrators may feel, precisely because these people choose to disregard the rules, even though they know them. In other words, we cannot speak of guilt in a situation where one does not believe in that rule.

“Better a poor horse than no horse at all”

After being tested positive for doping, all of Lance Armstrong’s previous titles were withdrawn and he was banned from working in the sports world. The falsification of scientific research increased—for a certain period of time—the prestige of professor and psychologist Marc Hauser, but in the long run, it contributed to his exclusion from academia.

The stigma and shame that come with the public exposure of those who are guilty of various scams are feelings that are hard to overlook.

Moreover, public exposure entails the avoidance of the individuals who have displayed such behaviour—in other words, isolation. Once a person knows the rules they must follow, they lose their state of amorality. The decision to comply or not to comply with those rules will then place them somewhere on the moral-immoral spectrum, and the extent to which they commit to the rules will determine not only the intensity of feelings of shame and guilt, but also the punishment they ought to face.