New research shows that winning maybe does not cause people to cheat

In 2016 I posted this blog post on a study that described a clear correlation between winning a competition and dishonest behaviour. It didn’t necessarily mean that the people who won did it by cheating. Now a study shows that this is maybe incorrect. Yes, this is how science works.

From the press release:

A 2016 paper by Israeli researchers reported a series of experiments, which claimed that winners of skill-based competitions are more likely to steal money in subsequent games of chance against different opponents, as opposed to losers or people who did not see themselves as winners or losers.

This highly-cited study of relatively small sample sizes proposed that competitive winning induces a sense of entitlement that encourages cheating.

But now, an expanded and enhanced study by researchers at the University of Leicester (UK) and the University of Southern California (USA), published today (Wednesday) in the journal Royal Society Open Science, has refuted the original findings.

The international team of researchers found that people with a strong sense of fairness cheat less — regardless of whether they had previously won or lost.

They examined the behaviour of 259 participants in a lab-based dice-rolling game — identical to the original study — and 275 participants undertaking a basic coin-tossing game in an additional online experiment. The results were then analysed using standard statistics plus a mathematical technique called structural equation modelling.

Researchers found that a small but significant amount of cheating occurred for the financial rewards on offer, just as in the original study. However, winning did not increase subsequent cheating or increase people’s sense of entitlement — and neither did losing.

Instead, the only factor investigated which could account for the small (but significant) amount of the cheating that occurred was low ‘inequality aversion’.

People with inequality aversion dislike unequal outcomes. Those with a strong sense of fairness tend to be inequality averse, and they avoid cheating because they view the practice as a form of unfairness.

Andrew Colman is a Professor of Psychology within the University of Leicester’s Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour, and also served as lead author for the new study.

Professor Colman said:

“Cheating and general dishonesty are of growing concern in the light of academic dishonesty in the digital age, problems of tax avoidance and evasion by wealthy people in developed economies, and more generally effects of widening inequality in wealth and income on corruption and crime.

“We were surprised by the findings in the 2016 study, and that’s why we wanted to replicate it with substantial sample sizes. The original study’s small samples do not have the statistical power to generate firm conclusions.

“We were amazed when it turned out that neither winning nor losing had any effect on cheating although a significant amount of cheating occurred. We have at least provided scientifically sound data that give a clear answer to the question.”

Abstract of the study:

In this preregistered study, we attempted to replicate and substantially extend a frequently cited experiment by Schurr and Ritov, published in 2016, suggesting that winners of pairwise competitions are more likely than others to steal money in subsequent games of chance against different opponents, possibly because of an enhanced sense of entitlement among competition winners. A replication seemed desirable because of the relevance of the effect to dishonesty in everyday life, the apparent counterintuitivity of the effect, possible problems and anomalies in the original study, and above all the fact that the researchers investigated only one potential explanation for the effect. Our results failed to replicate Schurr and Ritov’s basic finding: we found no evidence to support the hypotheses that either winning or losing is associated with subsequent cheating. A second online study also failed to replicate Schurr and Ritov’s basic finding. We used structural equation modelling to test four possible explanations for cheating—sense of entitlement, self-confidence, feeling lucky and inequality aversion. Only inequality aversion turned out to be significantly associated with cheating.

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