Why people are more likely to cheat or behave badly if it's easy to do

By Niall Firth
Last updated at 2:58 PM on 24th November 2010

People are much more likely to cheat or behave badly if it's easy
People are much more likely to cheat or behave badly if it's easy (picture posed by models)
People are much more likely to lie or cheat if it takes less effort than doing the right thing, new research suggests.

Scientists tested how willing people were to behave immorally and discovered that people will behave badly if it does not involve too much work on their part.
The researchers believe the findings could have implications for charities which rely on people’s good will for donations and help.

Rimma Teper, lead author on the study from the University of Toronto, said:  ‘People are more likely to cheat and make immoral decisions when their transgressions don't involve an explicit action.
‘If they can lie by omission, cheat without doing much legwork, or bypass a person's request for help without expressly denying them, they are much more likely to do so.’ 

In one study, participants took a maths test on a computer after being warned there were glitches in the system. One group was told if they pressed the space bar, the answer to the question would appear on the screen.

The second group was told if they didn't press the enter key within five seconds of seeing a question, the answer would appear.

‘People in the second group – those who didn't have to physically press a button to get the answers – were much more likely to cheat,’ says Associate Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, second author on the study, published online in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The team also asked participants whether they would volunteer to help a student with a learning disability do the test. One group of participants had only the option of checking a 'yes' or 'no' box that popped up on the computer. 

The second group of people could follow a link at the bottom of the page to volunteer their help or simply press 'continue' to move on to the next page of their test.
Participants were five times more likely to volunteer when they had to expressly pick either 'yes' or 'no.' 

‘It seems to be more difficult for people to explicitly deny their help, by clicking 'no,' than it is for them to simply click 'continue' and elude doing the right thing. We suspect that emotion plays an important role in driving this effect,’ says Teper.

‘When people are confronted with actively doing the right thing or the wrong thing, there are a lot of emotions involved – such as guilt and shame – that guide them to make the moral choice.
‘When the transgression is more passive, however, we saw more people doing the wrong thing, and we believe this is because the moral emotions in such situations are probably less intense,’ said Teper.

The team's research on moral behaviour is unique in that it looks at how people behave in certain situations rather simply asking them to predict how they might behave.
‘Forcing people to make an active, moral decision – a 'yes' or 'no' to donating, for example – is going to be much more effective than allowing them to passively skip over a request,’ he said.