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Ben Michaelis, Ph.D. Headshot

Why Do We Cheat?

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There's an epidemic going on. What do you mean you didn't know? Oh, I see, you were busy looking over at your classmate's paper, that's probably why you didn't notice.

As I was saying: The "cheating epidemic" is upon us. And it is everywhere. From our high schools, to our most hallowed institutions, to our venerable newspapers, to our best-selling authors. Cheaters are omnipresent. Quick -- cover your answers!

Yes. We are a society of cheaters. Of course we are. As a nation, we worship one thing even more than God and country. We revere winners. We love our winners for breakfast, lunch, and dinners (I think there is a limerick in there somewhere). Our society is so focused on results that we are training our children to become results machines. Our children are not dumb (at least mine aren't). They don't miss anything. They see that if they get the grades, they get into the best schools, they get the highest-paying jobs and all the perquisites of success come a rollin' in. Our children have figured it out. They know that in America 'tis better to cheat and win than be honest and lose.

I don't blame them. They are adapting to their environment. The problem is that our children are not cheating and winning. They are cheating and all of us are losing.

Before you skip over the rest of the article so you can finish up your crib notes, let me explain that this not a moralistic argument. I'm a shrink, not a priest. The point I am trying to make is for the soul of our country. Yes. Our children can cheat their way into Harvard, Princeton, and Yale... but what then? They will cheat their way into places like Goldman Sachs and Bear Sterns? Then they will cheat on their taxes, and then their spouses? Yep. That sounds about right. That's what we are -- a nation of pumpkin eaters.

Why does it matter? Does it matter? Actually, it does. It's not that cheaters don't have a lot of fun, because it seems that they do. Maybe they get the money, the cars, the resources. But they are cheating themselves out of their process and the rest of us out of their best efforts.

How can we help them and help us? By shifting our emphasis away from results and toward process. It's not that results don't matter; they do, it's just that results are not all that matters.

If results are the destination, process is the road that you travel to get there. If you skip the journey (by cheating), the destination becomes meaningless. If you "climb" to the top of the academic or corporate ladder by taking a free elevator ride up to the top, you will still get great views, but when you look inside you will see... nothing. Cheating creates an unseen void in the soul. Those that cheat their way to success desperately seek to fill that void with... well, more achievement. It becomes an endless cycle of addiction. Cheaters just end up looking for their next success fix. They run in circles between the fear of getting caught and the need to fill the emptiness. Nights become long and frightening, days like non-stop roller coasters, yet unless cheaters begin to take a process approach to life, they can never fill the void.

I am a clinical psychologist. I constantly see people struggling with emotional pain in my day job. Why I admire my patients is that they are struggling. It is honorable to struggle. There is dignity in exertion. Avoiding battle is cowardly. And that's really what cheating is -- trying to escape the fight.

Ethics classes are not the solution. The answer is that we all need to look inside and ask ourselves who we want to be and who we want our children to become. If we want to be externally successful but have an internal void, we should keep doing what we are doing. But if we want to value ourselves and to teach our children to honor themselves for who they are not, just what they can achieve, we need to encourage them to consider process as a critical part of achievement.

How do we do this?

When you struggle, or see your kids struggle, don't run away from it. Honor the fight. Go through it. When your kids achieve through exertion they will get not just the right answer, but the pride of knowing that they did it themselves. When you/they fail, don't sweep it under the rug. Try to learn from the failure. If you do that, you will be doing right by yourself, right by your children and right by their children, who will be here soon enough.

For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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