This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 2 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
A few years ago, I began to train for distance running races. During that time, I read an article about a runner named Kip Luton.1 I was taken by the fact that Kip and I had so much in common. He is a dental professional practicing in central Michigan, discovered running in his middle age, and has competed in many races. I was inspired initially by his story. He has a child with cystic fibrosis, and attempted to raise money for that cause based on his running accomplishments. His goal was to run a marathon (26.2 miles) under three hours in every state — a finish time that very few runners can accomplish for a single race.
I also noted significant differences between Kip and me. Not only is he a faster athlete, but there were some interesting and surprising facts about the races he ran. When the running community began to investigate his results, anomalies surfaced. He did not register a time when he passed through the various timing mats other than the start and finish mats. He only appeared in pictures taken at the start or finish line. He frequently changed outfits or shoes during races. He even made up an entire race to claim a win! In other words, there was evidence that he cheated in most, if not all, the races he entered.
It is difficult to contemplate the amount of time, effort, and money that it took to undertake his cheating endeavor. All done without apparent tangible benefit. What would convince someone with impressive professional accomplishments to expend considerable effort to cheat? How often does this happen? Despite the efforts of race directors to stop it, cheating in running races is not only common but increasing.2 An entire website has been created that details many cheating cases.3 Some cheaters attempt to qualify for the prestigious Boston marathon or obtain a winner’s medal, but most simply cheat to post a time faster than they are capable of running. In other words, they cheat for no tangible reason.
Since cheating in something as unimportant as an individual sporting event is common, what about cheating in other areas? When cheating scandals make the news, they are presented as uncommon but significant in magnitude. We justifiably are angry when companies such as Enron or individuals such as Bernie Madoff cheat investors out of significant amounts of money, but most believe that they themselves are honest. Is cheating a result of low moral standards of a minority? Do we tend to cheat when we are sure we can get away with it? More interesting, what does our propensity to cheat reveal about our hearts and attitude toward sin, as well as our ability to gauge our own capacity to bend the rules occasionally?
THE RATIONAL MODEL (SMORC)
It is no surprise that human beings cheat and break rules. Behavioral economists have sought to explain this using the Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC). Individuals cheat by making a rational decision reviewing the potential benefit of cheating with the risk of being caught and the punishment if caught. For example, many cheat on reporting their taxable income if they perceive the risk of being caught very low or if the punishment is worth the risk. However, few individuals will rob a convenience store because the gain is small, but the risk of being caught and punished is large. If this theory is true, the most effective way to decrease cheating is to decrease the ability to cheat and increase the penalty if caught.
Economist Dan Ariely has designed research tests to test the SMORC theory.4 He made a series of math tests in which participants were given twenty questions but only a short amount of time to solve them. They were paid for each question they correctly answered. One group had their scores calculated by the proctor of the test. Another group was asked to self-report the number of problems they answered correctly. The students were then instructed to place their test paper into a shredder (which secretly stored the papers untouched). In other words, the members of the second group were led to believe they could cheat without being caught. By comparing the two groups, the experimenters could determine the percentage of the students who cheated and the extent of the cheating. The expected result was that a small number of students would choose to cheat a great deal.
The results were surprising. Students who had their tests corrected by the proctor averaged four correct answers. The group that could cheat reported six correct answers, clearly indicating many of them lied about their actual score. Unpredictably, it was not a small number of students who cheated a huge amount that caused this disparity. Almost everyone who had the opportunity to cheat did so. However, they cheated only by a little. Almost no one reported solving all twenty questions even though they could do so without being detected. Also, almost no one reported their score honestly. Given an opportunity to cheat, most people will do so, but only by a small amount. Very few people are completely honest, and very few will cheat a great deal even if there is little or no chance of being caught.
This experiment has been repeated changing many variables. For example, if you increase the financial reward for cheating, SMORC predicts that cheating should increase. Experiments showed the opposite; cheating went down slightly when the financial stakes increased. Another experiment reminded the students of a moral code before taking the test by having them sign an honor code before beginning the test. Cheating went down significantly. In fact, this was the most effective way to decrease the amount of cheating on the test.
What are we to make of these results? Ariely postulates that most of us wish to view ourselves as a moral person. We want to look in the mirror and have a positive feeling about who we see. Therefore, when presented with an opportunity to cheat, we will choose to cheat only to the amount that we can still feel that we are generally a good person. He describes this as a “personal fudge factor.” Therefore, increasing the financial benefit of cheating has the opposite effect as expected. We are comfortable “fudging” a small amount, but as the rewards increase, we feel worse about the cheating, and we feel immoral. Likewise, reminding individuals of an objective moral code is effective in decreasing their personal fudge factor. The quick reminder makes it more difficult to justify cheating and to feel honest still.
The religious affiliation of the students had no bearing on the amount of cheating that was done in these studies. As followers of Christ and believers of objective moral truth, we may convince ourselves that, given the opportunity, we would be able to resist the temptation to be dishonest. This does not appear to be true. We should be aware of our propensity to “fudge” the truth when it benefits us although we believe such behavior is wrong. We not only tend to succumb to temptation but also convince ourselves that we are still good people who please God if we don’t cheat too much. That should give us pause when considering our own life and the ideals by which we claim to live. What type of fudge factor are we personally willing to tolerate that will allow us to believe we are living good and upstanding moral lives? The answer should be zero. The fact that it is not reflects on our need for Christ regardless of how moral we view our lives. Frankly, we lie to ourselves about our goodness.
During these experiments, there was a clear benefit from “fudging” the correct number of answers. However, what are we to think about situations in which people lie and cheat where there does not seem to be any tangible benefit, such as Luton’s marathon cheating? What about the cases in which cheating is not only unprofitable but takes a significant investment of time, money, energy, and risk to perform? Even more than the SMORC model or Ariely’s experiments, this type of cheating appears irrational.
It appears that there are fewer individuals that cheat irrationally than the many who utilize the personal fudge factor to cheat. However, this type of cheating is far from rare. One example can be taken from the world of online computer gaming. In these competitive online games, players compete against one another for points to compare themselves against all other players. For example, the popular game League of Legends ranks players in seven different leagues based on ability gained by rating points. There are many paid services that will “boost” your ranking for a cost, allowing you to compete in a league with higher skill. The developer of the game continually watches for these boosted accounts and permanently bans players caught cheating in this way. The fact that this market exists indicates that many players will choose to pay money and risk severe penalties to claim they are better than they are.
What would drive someone to spend extra money to cheat in a game for which they are already paying? One theory is that we exaggerate our accomplishments to look better in the eyes of others. In this world of social media, claiming an unearned goal serves to increase our image for all those views and likes that we crave. However, it is difficult to argue that improving our image is the primary motivation. Most gaming competitors don’t even use their real names in the competition. Likewise, most distance runners realize that despite the “likes” they may earn on social media, virtually no one remembers the times they post. Any short-lived good feelings gained by bragging about one’s imaginary accomplishments can’t be worth the time and trouble it takes to cheat. Interestingly, deep down inside, the ones who cheat have to know the truth.
Or maybe not. What if the driving force is not improving our image for others but instead attempting to improve how we view ourselves? Or more specifically, what if it is an attempt to confirm the image of ourselves that we imagine we should be? Someone who cuts the course to post a fast marathon time may not be attempting to impress others but instead to confirm what they believe about themselves. They believe that they are excellent athletes deserving of an impressive time in a race, despite the obvious truth that they lack that capability. In these instances, one can argue that the financial cost is worth it to confirm one’s imagined self-image instead of coming to an honest appraisal about our actual abilities and accomplishments. It is easier to cut a course or pay someone to increase your rating than to acknowledge the fact that you may not be as good as you imagine. The human trait that allows us to convince ourselves of this alternative reality worth cheating for is fascinating and troubling. The greatest danger may not be our capability to lie to one another but our propensity to lie to ourselves.
These findings reveal that most human beings have a far greater capacity to cheat than expected, and many even will spend significant resources to convince themselves that they are better than they are. The understanding of these traits is interesting considering the Christian worldview. First, unlike the SMORC theory, virtually all cheating is irrational. We cheat “a little” to gain something without violating our personal fudge factor, or expend resources to confirm a wrong view of ourselves, but inside we know that cheating and lying are wrong. Both motivations are inherently irrational, just as sin is inherently irrational. As Cornelius Plantinga explains,
“Sinful human life is a caricature of proper human life.”5 We know deep inside that the life of sin rebels against how God created us and His plan. Yet we are willing to cheat to preserve that caricature in our own minds, although we realize that the omniscient God that we serve knows the truth.
Lastly, we can observe the degree that individuals are able to stretch the truth to confirm the image they have for themselves. This is a consequence to valuing “self” based on how we perceive our image. The view we have of ourselves cannot be trusted when we so easily can distort it to see ourselves as better than we are. Truthfully, we are valued only by the image of the one who has created us. We live by a “fudge factor,” seeing our value in our achievements as greater than they really are. God does the opposite. He sees us as we really are; sinful, irrational beings willing to cheat and lie to ourselves, exaggerating our accomplishments to others. Yet He views us as inherently valuable, based not on our flawed image but His perfect one.
Richard J. Poupard (DDS) is a board certified oral and maxillofacial surgeon practicing in Midland, Michigan. He has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University and is a speaker for Life Training Institute
- Mark Singer, “Marathon Man: A Michigan Dentist’s Improbable Transformation,” The New Yorker, August 12, 2012, available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/08/06/marathon-man.
- Aaron Gordon, “To Catch a Marathon Cheat,” Vice Sports, January 25, 2017, https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/yp8bay/to-catch-a-marathon-cheat.
- Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves (Harper Perennial, 2013).
- Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 88.