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Surprising Science

Stress, Anxiety Causes Us to Cheat

Stress causes us to feel threatened, and even if the "threat" is something as small as a test, our minds shift into self-preservation mode, which may cause us to make immoral decisions.

Stress causes us to feel threatened and even if the “threat” is something as small as a test, our minds shift into self-preservation mode, which may cause us to make immoral decisions. Alex Fradera from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest summarized a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology where researchers found under stained conditions we become selfish which may cause students to cheat.


The study consisted of 63 student participants split into two groups, where they were either tasked with listening to three minutes of calm music or Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score. The latter was meant to induce anxiety among that particular group of participants–the students claimed that the tune did cause them to feel a bit more on-edge.

The groups were then put in front of a computer to complete a task where there were obvious options made available to cheat. Researchers tracked how many times each group used the cheat and found the non-anxious participants averaged 19 times. Whereas the anxious groups numbers shot up to an average 24 times, causing the researchers to conclude that the more threatened we feel, the more liable we are to cheat.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs best illustrates this idea: If a certain need isn’t being met—in the case of the students it’s safety—then our actions will be dominated to focus on fulfilling that need. The researchers offer their own suggestions, the first being that the stressed students were looking for a buffer—anything to help themselves in their anxious mindset. The other possibility is that in their frazzled state, their judgments were impaired, so they were unable to properly weigh-out their options–for them, cheating was the only option. What’s interesting, though, is when judging someone else for cheating, anxious and non-anxious participants would look at a third-party’s cheating with the same level of severity. So, we may be lenient on ourselves for immoral infractions in our addled state, but look down on others for a similar wrong-doing.

The bottom line is when we’re threatened long-term thought goes out the window and we’re more likely to utilize resources we know we shouldn’t. It’s a good thing for people to be mindful of to save ourselves from becoming hypocrites. 

Read more at Research Digest

Photo Credit: Shutterstock


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