10/24/2013 02:20 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Can Cheating Make Us Feel Good?

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that behaving in unethical ways creates positive feelings in many people, especially if they know or believe that their behavior is not harming anyone. These results are in sharp contrast to previous theories of moral behavior, which assume that all unethical behaviors cause most people to experience negative affect (to feel shameful, guilty, and otherwise bad about themselves and what they've done).

The researchers, led by Nicole Ruedy at the University of Washington, conducted six trials examining multiple aspects of "victimless" unethical behavior and its emotional effects. They found that although people predict they will feel bad after engaging in unethical behavior, they often do not, and, in fact, many actually experience an increase in feelings of excitement and arousal. The authors have labeled this increase in positive affect the "cheater's high."

I am happy to report that this rather significant piece of research makes perfect sense to me as a clinician who has worked with, quite literally, thousands of men and women who've been "forced" into treatment by an "angry and resentful" partner (who has often just learned of the identified patient's ongoing pattern sexual infidelity). The minimizations, rationalizations and outright denials of reality I see in these "cheating" men and women are often astounding. And nearly always part of this justification is the fact that they have convinced themselves they are not hurting anyone, which is a key element in the cheater's high described above.

That said, the "cheater's high" study did not focus on relationship infidelity or even things like outright stealing. Instead, researchers looked at unethical behavior engaged in while solving math, logic and word problems. In one experiment, participants answered math and logic problems on computers in two groups. In group one, when participants completed an answer, they were automatically moved to the next question. In the second group, participants could click a button on the screen to see the correct answer before giving their own, but they were asked to disregard the correct answer button and solve the problems without that crutch. Researchers could see who used the correct answer button (who cheated), and they found that 68 percent of the people who had that option took it. Thus we see that about two-thirds of people will cheat, as long as there is no perceived victim.

In another experiment, the researchers paired a true study participant with an actor pretending to be a study participant. The actual participants were told they would be paid for each puzzle they solved within a certain time limit, with their work being graded by the other participant (the actor). So while the real participants solved puzzles, the fake participants graded the results. For half of the real participants, the actor/grader inflated the puzzle-solver's score, thereby increasing that person's financial payout. For the other half, the actor/grader scored the test accurately. None of the participants in the cheating duos reported the lie. Afterward, those who gained from the actor/grader telling a lie reported feeling better (having a higher positive affect) than those who did not. In other words, they felt good about getting away with something.

All told, the six trials in the study provide a strong challenge to the long-held assumption that in most people, unethical behavior automatically triggers negative affect. Here, research shows that even though most people expect to experience negative affect, unscrupulous behavior may in fact trigger positive feelings, especially if the person's "crime" is thought (by the person) to be victimless. This last portion is the groundbreaking part. As the authors write in their study:

Very little prior work has examined the consequences of voluntary unethical behavior without obvious harm or a salient victim. This is an important omission not only because these types of unethical behavior are common ... but also because the affective consequences of these acts may be very different [and] may actually evoke positive affect ... The idea that unethical behavior can trigger positive affect is consistent with many anecdotal accounts of dishonesty, theft, and fraud. These accounts include wealthy individuals who delight in shoplifting affordable goods, joy-riders who steal cars for the thrill and fraudsters who revel in their misdeeds.

So is it reasonable to officially extend these findings to infidelity? As of now, probably not. In reality, much more research is needed on the topic. Anecdotally speaking, however, I can tell you that this cheater's high is very much a part of serial sexual infidelity for a lot of people. Men and women who engage in such behavior very often think: What she (or he) doesn't know can't possibly hurt her (or him). Thus, in addition to the actual sexual experience, they get to experience the cheater's high brought on by getting away with their "victimless" unethical behavior.

Potential Causes of the Cheater's High

As Ruedy and her colleagues note, there are three primary ways in which people derive psychological benefits from victimless unethical behaviors. They are, in short:

  1. Such behaviors may provide financial, social or other gains such as better grades, raises at work, the satisfaction of "doing better" than someone else, etc. These windfalls are, generally speaking, triggers for positive affect.
  2. Such behaviors may lead to a greater sense of autonomy and influence. Circumventing rules that limit others gives cheaters an expanded range of options and an increased sense of control over their life outcomes, thereby increasing positive affect.
  3. Such behaviors often involve the challenge of breaking rules and overcoming systems that are designed to constrain that behavior. The mental gymnastics involved in this can make life more interesting and enjoyable, leading to an increase in positive affect.

All of these are very much in play when it comes to relationship infidelity. First, the "windfall" of infidelity is having more (and perhaps more exciting) sex. Second, circumventing vows of monogamy and other societal rules attached to long-term relationships gives cheaters a greater sense of control over their sexual lives, and often that feeling of control extends to other areas of life. Third, and I see this in many of my clients, there is a definite sense of enjoyment/accomplishment in facing and meeting the challenges of secretive philandering.

What the researchers fail to consider is the pleasurable neurochemical rush human beings get from certain behaviors. It is this experience of pleasure that drives much of human activity. This, of course, is most apparent in adolescents, who act more impulsively, fail to consider long-term consequences, and are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than adults or younger children. Simply put, teens have higher rates of accidents, drug and alcohol use, suicide, unsafe sexual behaviors and criminal behavior. And functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of the brain tell us very clearly that this is neurobiological in nature. Essentially, different parts of the brain mature at different rates, with the nucleus accumbens, better known as the brain's "pleasure center," maturing quickly, and the striatum, which controls rational thought and decision-making, maturing slowly. In essence, the human brain is designed to encourage irresponsible behavior in adolescents (understanding that a period of time in which risky, impulsive, perhaps even unethical behaviors are more attractive than safe, responsible behaviors results in learning and emotional growth). The problem is that for some people, the striatum never quite catches up to the nucleus accumbens, meaning the neurochemical rush of "fun" behaviors continues to outweigh the joys of meeting obligations, keeping promises and behaving ethically. And "getting away with it" most likely enhances the usual dopaminergic rush.

The Cheater's High and Sexual Infidelity

One aspect of the cheater's high that definitely needs to be researched further is whether it serves as a motivating factor in future decision-making. In other words: Does getting away with unethical behavior and feeling good about oneself afterward motivate a person to repeat his or her unethical behavior? The same basic question worded differently and from my usual therapeutic perspective reads: Does cheating on your significant other without getting caught and then feeling good about yourself make you want to cheat again? If so, that would certainly explain, at least in part, a lot of the behavior my clients have engaged in.

That said, as every good clinician knows, the full spectrum of reasons people do the things they do is never simple. Motivations for engaging in sexual infidelity are even more complex because the innate and very complicated drive for sexual congress is thrown into the mix. Most often, the assistance of an extremely skilled clinician is needed if a cheater is ever going to parse through the many layers of feeling, perception, and experience that drive his or her extracurricular sexual activity.

Ultimately, of course, a person's reasons (both conscious and unconscious) for cheating are less important than their current and future behavior. It is possible, even for those addicted to intensity-based patterns of behavior (gambling, porn, sex, spending, etc.), to change their conduct without ever developing a deep understanding of that behavior's root causes. In fact, the initial approach taken when treating any form of addiction is to change the behavior first, and then, once sobriety is solidly established, attempt to deal with the emotional and psychological underpinnings of the problem. Of course, if a person is still enjoying the cheating, and if that person still feels that his or her behavior is not hurting anyone, then getting that person to willingly enter treatment and do the necessary work of recovery is well-nigh impossible. Still, the more we know about what motivates good people to do bad things, the better off we'll be, and the cheater's high discussed herein may well be a significant step in that direction.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, Mr. Weiss is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.

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