According to the brilliant minds over at Harvard and the University of Texas, Austin, cheating, as well as other "unethical behaviors" could be the result of higher testosterone and cortisol levels. The initial purpose of their study was to discover what exactly motivates us to do something society deems morally wrong. And this goes far beyond cheating on a spouse or partner. Rising cases of college students cheating on tests and financial fraud in business were also major factors in the decision to conduct this study.
At first, I was irked by these researchers' decision to give cheaters another way to rationalize their unjust actions, but upon realizing how many meanings the term "cheating" has, I withheld my judgment. The experiment was performed using a simple math test. One hundred seventeen participants were given the test, then told they had to grade it themselves. The catch was they were also told they would receive more money for doing the study the more correct answers they got.
They tested the hormone factor by taking saliva samples from the participants after they took the test. They found that the people who weren't totally honest about how many answers they got right had higher levels of the hormones testosterone and cortisol in their systems.
The author's leader, Robert Josephs, UT Austin professor of psychology, said in a press release, “elevated testosterone decreases the fear of punishment while increasing sensitivity to reward. Elevated cortisol is linked to an uncomfortable state of chronic stress that can be extremely debilitating. Testosterone furnishes this courage to cheat, and elevated cortisol provides a reason to cheat.” Sounds like a perfectly horrible combination of hormones, if you ask me.
Participants who cheated also reported feeling an immediate stress release after the test was over, as if relief was washing over them. The scientists say that has to do with their cortisol levels suddenly lowering. Essentially, the physiological reaction is like a reward for the cheaters. They feel good after they cheat, so it encourages them to keep up the bad behavior.
Thankfully, there's a silver lining to these results. The researchers believe they may be able to stop this vicious cycle by inhibiting how these two hormones interact with each other. For example, if they can keep both testosterone and cortisol levels low, they won't cause the same "stress-relief" effect in people.
If you're someone who's prone to cheating or "unethical behavior" of any kind, it may have something to do with how cortisol is affecting your stress levels. If you do things to actively combat those levels, like meditate or do yoga regularly, you may be able to keep your cheating tendencies in check. However, if that doesn't work, now that they understand the cause, these scientists are working on treatments to intervene on a medical level.
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