Why honest people cheat

Every day we have the opportunity to lie, cheat and be dishonest for personal gain. Alternatively, we can choose to be a ‘good person’ and uphold our positive moral self-image. It is generally assumed that our cognitive control or ‘willpower’ steers people away from immoral decisions.

But according to new research from PhD candidate Sebastian Speer, Professor Ale Smidts and Dr Maarten Boksem of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), cognitive control does not serve the same purpose for everyone. In fact, this control actually enables cheating for people who are usually honest, while it facilitates honest decisions for cheaters.

Using an MRI scanner, the researchers examined how different areas of the brain promote cheating or honesty. They found that a brain region frequently associated with the processing of reward was more strongly activated for cheaters during the decision-making process, whereas honest people showed higher activity and connectivity in a network of regions related to self-referential thinking. The most remarkable findings, however, concerned the involvement of brain areas responsible for cognitive control. We asked Sebastian Speer some questions about these findings.


“Surprisingly, we found that for honest participants, more cognitive control was needed to cheat, whereas for participants who cheated frequently, control was needed in order to be honest”


Why did you research this?

Sebastian Speer: “We are constantly confronted with moral dilemmas and everyone appears to follow slightly (or sometimes extremely) different guidelines or rules to solve these dilemmas. There is a long-standing debate among philosophers and scientists on the cognitive nature of honesty: Is it a matter of ‘willpower’ or ‘grace’? The Will hypothesis proposes that honesty requires cognitive control to suppress temptation to cheat, while dishonesty to serve self-interest is people’s default response. In direct opposition, the Grace hypothesis puts forward that honesty is automatic and does not require active resistance to temptation, whereas cheating is enabled by cognitive control to override honest impulses. Earlier studies related to this debate are inconclusive: some studies supported the Will hypothesis, while others have provided evidence in favour of the Grace hypothesis. This study aims to provide reconciliation between these two competing hypotheses.”


How did you research this?

“Neuroimaging provides a window into the underlying mechanism that manifests in our decision-making and consequently our moral character, as it inconspicuously measures neural activity as these decisions unfold in real time. This way we can investigate the psychological processes and motivation that produce individual differences in moral decision-making that would be impossible to assess in a questionnaire as participants are likely to alter their responses to appear in a more favourable light.

“We combined neuroimaging, in particular functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with a task in which participants could cheat repeatedly, deliberately, and voluntarily inside the MRI scanner without suspicion of the real purpose of the task. This task pioneers in measuring the neural mechanisms underlying (dis)honesty on a trial-by-trial basis, which allowed us to get more insights not only into what happens in the brain when a participant decides to cheat or be honest in that specific occasion, but also which neural mechanisms underlie a cheater’s decision to be honest and a generally honest individual’s decision to cheat.”


What did you find?

“Our findings suggest that people are distributed along a continuum, from individuals who are generally honest to cheaters. Individuals on one end of the continuum have an inclination to be honest which is associated with more self-referential thinking when given the opportunity to cheat. In contrast, individuals on the other end have an inclination for dishonesty, and their decisions are driven more strongly by rewards. In order to achieve a subjectively justifiable and desirable balance where one can occasionally profit from cheating but still maintain a positive self-image, people on both sides of the spectrum sometimes need to override their moral default. We show that the cognitive control network may orchestrate both honesty for people who can be considered cheaters and dishonesty for the more honestly inclined and thus provide potential reconciliation for this long-standing paradox.”


How can this be used by businesses?

“There are immense economic costs caused by dishonest behaviour, such as tax evasion, insurance fraud, music piracy or business scandals, so finding effective ways to reduce dishonest behaviour are of great relevance to policy makers. Also, during the COVID-19 pandemic dishonesty in the form of selling low-quality face masks and fraud on governmental subsidies are highly prevalent, which highlights the relevance of our findings. Dishonesty also pervades daily behaviours such as people not reporting corona symptoms when entering restaurants or theatres, or fraudulently reporting corona symptoms to get a ‘free’ corona test and thus increasing waiting lines and costs and even negatively affecting the testing of urgent corona cases. By understanding how different neurocognitive processes determine honesty or dishonesty in different individuals these insights can prove instrumental in the development of more efficient strategies to reduce dishonesty and strengthen trust in society.

“An important contribution of our study is that different individuals need different interventions as opposed to a one-fits-all solution. For example, having people think hard about the consequences of their actions only works for a subset of individuals (the cheaters). Thinking hard may increase their cognitive control and thus they may indeed decide against their natural inclination to cheat and be honest. For others (the more honestly inclined), it may actually increase dishonesty: their default is to be honest, but if they start thinking about the option to cheat, they may decide that it sometimes makes sense to do so.”


More about the research field

Neuroeconomics is a relatively new interdisciplinary field that aims to explain human decision-making, the ability to process multiple alternatives and to follow a course of action. It combines insights and methods from neuroscience, economics, psychology and increasingly marketing and computer science to understand which neurocognitive processes give rise to our decisions. RSM’s department of Marketing Management has been pioneering this field in particularly as it relates to consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing. See the Erasmus Centre for Neuroeconomics website for more information about our projects.

This paper was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this article, please contact Danielle Baan, Media Officer for RSM, via +31 10 408 2028 or baan@rsm.nl.

Share this article: