Readers Respond to "Why We Cheat"

Letters to the editor from the May/June 2013 issue of Scientific American MIND
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The article “Why We Cheat,” by Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall, attempts to link cheating and deception to the natural sciences. In my opinion, this topic of study is much better suited to the social sciences. Fish, mammals and bacteria cannot cheat, although they may employ various creative tactics that resemble “dishonesty” to get what they want, such as food or a mate. These behaviors are only “wrong” once there is a social determination that the tactics being used allow for some kind of undue advantage.

For people, we allow a wide range of creative deception in our everyday lives (for instance, flattery or lying about one's age), but those behaviors are seen quite differently once they break an agreed-on moral/legal ethic, such as when an accountant engages in insider trading or a student cheats on a test.

By equating the natural aspects of our behavior with their social outcomes, the article conflates what is ultimately a social and moral choice with a natural trait. Only at the end of the article is the point correctly made by describing the social reasons why people choose to act dishonestly: anxiety over loss, copycat behavior, hypermotivation, and so on.

Severin Wirz
Annapolis, Md.


I don't doubt that listening to Brahms is a nice trip, as Erica Rex described in “Calming a Turbulent Mind,” but I am betting that listening to Jimi Hendrix is even better. More seriously, I have long believed in giving the option of psychotropic drugs to terminal patients to alleviate the sheer terror of dying that many experience.

To do less, in my opinion, is simply cruelty. Those people who believe, for religious or other reasons, that such suffering has moral worth, are free to do without when their time of dying comes. But I am betting that, given the choice, most won't.

“Mr. Mxyzptlk III”
commenting at


I'll be honest. I don't always make time to read magazines, and it was pure impulse when I purchased the May/June issue of Scientific American Mind to accompany my two-hour train ride from Connecticut to New York City. Yet many of the topics in this issue appealed to me as a failed premed major—in particular, “Perfectly Timed Advertising” [Illusions], by Stephen L. Macknik, Leandro Luigi di Stasi and Susana Martinez-Conde. As a museum curator, I spend a lot of time looking and inviting other people to look at works of art. I read this article and appreciated the discussion of the aesthetics of watch imagery. After the reference to the Marc Chagall painting, I vowed to look more closely at clocks and watches in art.

The next day I made a brief visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art before a meeting. In one of the galleries of modern American art, far removed from the crowds flocking to the major exhibitions, was Florine Stettheimer's The Cathedrals of Broadway, 1929. It was a beautiful coincidence that in this painting, the clock reads 10:10. Perhaps the time is a “real” reference to when Broadway performances let out, or perhaps it looks pleasing to the eye, which it does.

Thank you for this intriguing and informative article, which I hope will foster an appreciation for these relics of the predigital era.

Erin Monroe
Wadsworth Atheneum Hartford, Conn.

Many years ago I had heard that hands on display clocks were set at 8:20, not because they didn't want to hide the company name, usually on the bottom of the face, but to frame and point at the name. Hands in the horizontal position would not do this. (And why not reverse it to 3:40? Probably convention.)

This article was originally published with the title "May/June 2013."

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