Blogistan Polytechnic Institute has no exams. Well, okay, we had one, way back when. But since then, the resident faculty have been depriving you of a surprising reason to feel good. (More)

Yes, there once was an exam at BPI. Okay, the resident faculty didn’t call it that. They called it the End-of-Semester Activity Fraught With Stress And Sometimes Disappointment. Everyone got a 4.0, most of them by chair-dancing to the music videos. But some students still stressed over it and the resident faculty haven’t done it again since.

So I will. Write my full name on a sheet of paper. Yes, spelling counts. The answer is at the bottom of this article. No peeking.

I’ll have a mid-morning snack while you answer.

Welcome back.

You peeked, didn’t you? And if a new study by Nicole Ruedy, Celia Moore, Francesca Gino, and Maurice Schweitzer is right, you felt good about peeking. The New York TimesJan Hoffman offers a good summary:

When was the last time you cheated?

Not on the soul-scorching magnitude of, say, Bernie Madoff, Lance Armstrong or John Edwards. Just nudge-the-golf-ball cheating.

Maybe you rounded up numbers on an expense report. Let your eyes wander during a high-stakes exam. Or copied a friend’s expensive software.

And how did you feel afterward? You may recall nervousness, a twinge of guilt.

But new research shows that as long as you didn’t think your cheating hurt anyone, you may have felt great. The discomfort you remember feeling then may actually be a response rewritten now by your inner moral authority, your “should” voice.

It turns out most people feel good immediately after they cheat:

“Showing people feeling positively after committing a moral transgression is pretty novel,” said Scott Wiltermuth, an assistant professor in the business school at the University of Southern California, who writes about behavioral ethics and was not involved in this study.

One reason for pervasive garden-variety cheating is “that we have so many ways to cheat anonymously, especially via the Web,” Professor Wiltermuth said. The exhilaration, he added, may come from “people congratulating themselves on their cleverness.”

The study’s first experiment involved a word-unscrambling test. Were told to grade their own papers, and were paid $1 for each correct answer. Although the students didn’t know it, the researchers could detect when students changed answers while grading their own tests, and 41% of them did. What’s more, the students who changed their answers scored higher on a mood assessment after the exam.

In a follow-up study, the researchers used a computerized test and told the students to ignore the pop-up menus that offered the correct answers. Even more students cheated – 68% clicked at least one pop-up – and they also felt better after the test than the students who didn’t.

We don’t even have to cheat directly. In another follow-up, students were paired with ‘partners’ who were actually research assistants. They worked out math problems together and then graded them. But the research assistants boosted their reported scores in filling out the test evaluation, basically cheating for both of them. Not a single student objected … and none reported feeling guilty.

All of this sounds very bad, but let’s put it in context. Cheating falls into the category of I Found An Easier Way.

The researchers could almost certainly get a similar emotional response by asking students to solve a series of mazes with an instruction to “Draw a line connecting the points marked Start and Finish.” Most mazes are easier to solve backward, drawing a line from the Finish to the Start, and the researchers could ensure that the mazes on their test fit that pattern. Solving the mazes backward be Finding An Easier Way and, because it doesn’t violate the instruction above, it would not be “cheating.”

I’ll go out on a limb – squirrels do that – and predict that students who solved the mazes backward (the Easier Way) would feel better than students who stuck with the convention and solved them forward (the Hard Way). In fact, the mood difference might be even greater than with the cheating tests … because the good feeling of I Found An Easier Way would not be offset by any bad feeling of cheating.

It makes evolutionary sense that we get an emotional boost from Finding An Easier Way. Tribes whose members felt good after Finding An Easier Way would have a hefty survival advantage over tribes whose members didn’t and kept doing things the Hard Way. Without that emotional boost, humans might never have discovered agriculture – an Easier Way as compared to the Harder Way of gathering food in the wild – or most other scientific advances.

Yes, sometimes the Easier Way violates important social norms, and we call that “cheating.” And yes, psychologists and managers should look for ways to discourage cheating. But we shouldn’t be surprised that cheating feels good.

By not offering exams, the BPI resident faculty are depriving us of the chance to Find An Easier Way to solve the problems. Maybe that’s why I’m so grumpy.

Good day and good nuts.


(Answer: Regis Phlyphytyphts Phlyphytyl III. Sorry. It’s Welsh.)