Cheaters Wrongly Attribute Their Success to Intelligence

Individuals who cheat in life quickly ignore the fact that their success is fraudulent, believing instead that their own abilities will carry them to even greater heights.

Individuals who cheat in life quickly ignore the fact that their success is fraudulent, believing instead that their own abilities will carry them to even greater heights. When this doesn't pan out, cheaters could be in for a rude awakening, says Tom Stafford, psychology and cognitive science lecturer at the University of Sheffield, UK.


Stafford analyzes a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, conducted by Zoë Chance of Yale University and Dan Ariely of Duke University. To test the self-deception of cheaters, researchers gave all study participants an exam of general knowledge questions. Some exams arrived to individuals with the answers "accidentally" printed on the bottom.

The group of test takers who received the answers along with the exam scored categorically higher, so to test whether people would recognize that their success was partially a result of cheating, researchers asked them to predict their achievement on future tests. 

Surprisingly, the group of cheaters did not recognize that their achievement was aided by fraudulent success and predicted they would score higher than the non-cheating group on the next exam. The study explained:

"We find that those who exploit opportunities to cheat on tests are likely to engage in self-deception, inferring that their elevated performance is a sign of intelligence. This short-term psychological benefit of self-deception, however, can come with longer-term costs: when predicting future performance, participants expect to perform equally well — a lack of awareness that persists even when these inflated expectations prove costly."

However, the presence of cognitive biases that mislead us in our perception of reality is not the enemy. Rather than trying to do away with our biases, the smarter approach is to become aware of them. As Peter Baumann explains, biases are essential to survival, and becoming aware of them can bring us closer to the truth about ourselves and our existence:

"The interesting thing is really not to try to do away with these biases, but to really ... understand that they cloud our clear thinking. That goes anywhere from self-deception to uniqueness bias ... You know, basically the brain evolved for us to make ourselves special, to think of us as valuable. Otherwise we would not be able to go through the strains and the struggles and difficulties of life."

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