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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 2

Why We Cheat

Scientists are unraveling the causes of fraud and dishonesty and devising new strategies for rooting them out

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Cyclist Lance Armstrong has apologized for using performance-enhancing drugs to win seven Tour de France titles. He attributed his cheating to a determination to “win at all costs.” Psychologist Marc Hauser of Harvard University, who once wrote an article entitled “Costs of Deception: Cheaters Are Punished…,” is now out of a job after the U.S. Office of Research Integrity concluded that he “fabricated data, manipulated results in multiple experiments, and described how studies were conducted in factually incorrect ways.” Sixteen banks have agreed to settlements or are under investigation for manipulation of the Libor, an interest rate at which banks may borrow from other banks, in what is said to be the largest financial scam in the history of markets.

These cases are only part of a seemingly unending stream of cheating scandals in the news, affecting sports, science, education, finance and other realms. Although it is comforting to think that most people are essentially honest, cheating—defined as acting dishonestly to gain an advantage—is actually astoundingly common. In a 1997 survey, management professor Donald McCabe of Rutgers University and Linda Klebe Treviño, a professor of organizational behavior at the Pennsylvania State University, revealed that about three fourths of 1,800 students at nine state universities admitted to cheating on tests or written assignments. In 2005 sociologist Brian Martinson of the HealthPartners Research Foundation in Bloomington, Minn., and his colleagues reported that one third of scientists confessed to engaging in questionable research practices during the previous three years.

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