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updated 11/15/2007 3:07:25 PM ET 2007-11-15T20:07:25

Morally upstanding people are the do-gooders of society, right? Actually, a new study finds that a sense of moral superiority can lead to unethical acts, such as cheating. In fact, some of the best do-gooders can become the worst cheats.

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Stop us if this sounds familiar.

When asked to describe themselves, most people typically will rattle off a list of physical features and activities (for example, "I do yoga" or "I'm a paralegal"). But some people have what scientists call a moral identity, in which the answer to the question would include phrases like "I am honest" and "I am a caring person."

Past research has suggested that people who describe themselves with words such as honest and generous are also more likely to engage in volunteer work and other socially responsible acts.

But often in life, the line between right and wrong becomes blurry, particularly when it comes to cheating on a test or in the workplace. For example, somebody could rationalize cheating on a test as a way of achieving their dream of becoming a doctor and helping people.

In the new study, detailed in the November issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers find that when this line between right and wrong is ambiguous among people who think of themselves as having high moral standards, the do-gooders can become the worst of cheaters.

The results recall the seeming disconnect between the words and actions of folks like televangelist and fraud convict Jim Bakker or admitted meth-buyer Ted Haggard, former president of the National Evangelical Association, an umbrella group representing some 45,000 churches.

"The principle we uncovered is that when faced with a moral decision, those with a strong moral identity choose their fate (for good or for bad) and then the moral identity drives them to pursue that fate to the extreme," said researcher Scott Reynolds of the University of Washington Business School in Seattle. "So it makes sense that this principle would help explain what makes the greatest of saints and the foulest of hypocrites."

Why cheat? Why not?
Why would a person who thinks of himself as honest cheat? The researchers suggest an "ethical person" could view cheating as an OK thing to do, justifying the act as a means to a moral end.

As Reynolds put it: "If I cheat, then I'll get into graduate school, and if I get into graduate school, then I can become a doctor and think about all the people I'm going to help when I'm a doctor."

A competitive playing field, whether at a university or business, can also motivate cheating behaviors.

"Cheating is a way to get ahead in a competitive environment where there are rewards for winning or getting ahead of others," said Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the current study. "It seems like there is an increasing desire and expectation in our society to 'be the best.' "

Even if a person doesn't justify his unethical behaviors, "cheating can save lots of time and energy and take advantage of the knowledge and reasoning of others who are more adept, but could be disastrous if one is caught," Kruger said. He added, "I am not surprised that some of the extreme examples of cheating — ripping the relevant pages out of library books so other students cannot see them — happen in intensely competitive environments, law school in this example (of ripping out book pages)."

Cheating basics
Reynolds and University of Washington colleague Tara Ceranic surveyed about 230 college students with an average age of 21 who were enrolled in an upper-level business course. The survey measured moral identity with 12 questions about the importance of certain characteristics — such as generosity, willingness to work hard, honesty and compassion — and whether things like clothing, books, activities and friends were associated with the moral characteristics.

Students were also asked whether they had engaged in each of 13 cheating behaviors, including using cheat sheets (crib notes), copying from another student and turning in work completed by someone else.

Overall, cheating was rampant.

  • More than 90 percent reported having committed at least one of the 13 cheating behaviors.
  • More than 55 percent reported saying nothing when they had benefited from an instructor's grading error.
  • Nearly 50 percent reported having inappropriately collaborated on an individual assignment.
  • Nearly 42 percent indicated copying from another student during a test.

Students who scored high on moral identity and also considered cheating to be morally wrong were the least likely to cheat. In contrast, the worst cheaters were the "moral" students who considered cheating to be an ethically justifiable behavior in certain situations.

"If they think it's wrong, they'll never do it," Reynolds told LiveScience. "If they think it's OK, they do it in spades."

The researchers found similar results when they surveyed 290 managers, asking them whether they had engaged in 17 workplace "no-no's," including using company services for personal use, padding an expense account and taking longer than necessary to do a job. The managers with moral identities were also most likely to engage in the sketchy office behavior.

"When people have a strong moral identity, they think of themselves as great moral people, their behavior tends to go to the extremes," Reynolds said.

Cheat-proof tactics
In order to encourage students and managers to forego cheating in exchange for ethical behaviors, Reynolds suggests ethics education. Classes, newsletters and other means of communication should help organizations to communicate which behaviors are morally acceptable and which are not.

The old-school method of rewards and punishments could help. "We learn through rewards and punishments so to the extent that schools crack down when they need to crack down, we'd all be better off," Reynolds said.

For managers recruiting new employees, just because a person identifies himself or herself as honest doesn't mean they won't cut corners.

"If you can recruit people with a moral identity and then train them appropriately, you'll get some of the best behavior you can imagine," Reynolds said.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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