Why we think it’s OK to cheat and steal (sometimes)

Notes on Dan Ariely’s TED Talk about the factors that influence cheating

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely studies the bugs in our moral code via clever studies and uncovers why we think it’s ok to cheat (sometimes)

You might wonder if there are just a few bad apples (immoral people) who are prone to cheating, or if lots of people are susceptible to cheating.

Turns out, a lot of people cheat, but just a little bit.

According to economic theory, cheating is a simple cost-benefit analysis of the probability of getting caught, the reward for cheating and the punishment for getting caught.

Turns out, changing these factors doesn’t really affect the amount of cheating. Irrespective, a lot of people cheat, just a little bit.

Cheating fudge factor

Turns out the factor that affects cheating the most, is our self-image & justification.

On the one hand we all want to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves. On the other hand, we can cheat a little bit and still feel good about ourselves.

So we all cheat a little bit. There’s a level of cheating we can’t go over, but we can indulge in cheating at a low degree as long as that doesn’t change our image of ourselves.

So which factors affect this cheating fudge factor?

  • When you remind people of a moral code, cheating goes down.
  • When the reward of cheating is indirect (pens/tokens rather than money) cheating goes up — it’s easier to feel fine about “stealing” a pen, than about stealing 50 cents.
  • When we see someone from our group (someone we identify with) cheating, it makes cheating seem more acceptable.
  • When we see someone from a group that we don’t identify with cheat, it makes cheating seem less acceptable.


  • A lot of people will cheat a little bit, if they can get away with it and justify it to themselves.
  • Put in contextual reminders of moral code to lower cheating.
  • Set the right social examples in the group about cheating.

Meta lesson: Test your assumptions/intuitions, because humans are predictably irrational!

Related: This got me thinking about how one can walk the fine line between cheating and bending inefficient rules with integrity.