Why Do People Cheat? (Because They Often Win)
J. M. Fenster Tries to Understand the Motivations of Rule-Breakers
When I set out to study cheating, I naturally told everyone I met about my new project and soon found that some people blushed red at the very sound of the word. Then I would blush, it being obvious that the other person had just inadvertently confessed something very intimate. Being a polite American first and an ace investigator second, I’d change the subject as quickly as possible. One colleague to whom I mentioned cheating in the course of conversation still averts her eyes when we meet. It’s all part of the uncomfortable excitement that surrounds cheating.
Acquaintances who took the news of my research in a smoother stride would typically ask why I had chosen that particular topic. “Dogs don’t cheat!” was my reply. I was so emphatic about this kernel of life experience that I’d repeat it, adding cats and horses: They don’t cheat. My idea at the start was that humans are the only species that cheats, and because the possibility of it enters into their every endeavor, it’s central to the daily trial of being human: whether to cheat or not to cheat.
Dogs, however, don’t occupy the narrow space between those twin guide rails; only humans go through life ricocheting back and forth between the two, or else clutching one, while eyeing the other. That’s the human lot. And dogs don’t cheat.
That was before I learned that I was entirely wrong. While still in the talking stage of this book, I played Fetch with my dog, Bisbee, one evening, just as always. He is a creature so pure-hearted that my big joke is that Jesus has a bumper sticker on his car that says, “What would Bisbee do?” I learned all at once that among other things, Bisbee would cheat.
On the day in question, he stole the ball and suddenly turned Fetch into a different game, one called Let’s-Make-the-Lethargic-Human-Chase-the-Dog-All-Over-the-House. The look on his face was the happiest I’d ever seen. His eyes alive, his tail nearly slapping his sides. He had just realized that he was calling the shots. He didn’t have to play Fetch; he had possession of the ball. His face shone with the bright rays of discovery. The first few times Bisbee changed the game, I went along, ever good-natured, and played Chase. On the day that I didn’t, staying put and bellowing that he was a goddamned cheater, he ate the ball.
Bisbee’s point, which was incisive, was that he hadn’t agreed to any particular game or any prevailing rules. My counterargument was that simply by participating in the first game—Fetch—he had tacitly committed to that game, as well as its rules. Between our two views lay the aspect of cheating that is peculiarly human: the expressed acceptance of rules.
In the natural world, the one that embraces all species, including Bisbee’s, rules are only implied. Testing them to push for greater comfort or happiness isn’t cheating; it’s behavioral evolution, a certain sign of life.
Humans may not be the only creatures to make up rules, but they are unquestionably the only ones who expect someone else to commit voluntarily and in advance to following them, preferably in writing. People take wedding vows—nobody makes them do that. They sign honor codes, though they will not starve to death if they don’t. They enter into contracts to play sports, but only if they choose to. Some commitments may be slightly less explicit, but they are no less definite.
Ironically enough, agreeing to be bound constitutes the ultimate proof that a human is free. Consenting to follow a certain set of rules—voluntarily—is an act of self-determination. When enslaved or bound in fiefdom, forced into an arranged marriage or strong-armed into a religious sect, a person cannot cheat. It isn’t possible. They might “behaviorally evolve,” but they can’t betray rules to which they didn’t agree. They cannot cheat in the sense of interest to this book. Looking on the positive side of miserable circumstances, one cannot be a slimy, rotten hypocrite without first having a will of one’s own.
Americans have that freedom. For their own benefit or that of the group, perhaps even that of the whole nation, an individual enters into covenants of various stripes. The covenants describe the individual. A Southern Baptist, for example. A point guard in college basketball. A marathon runner, a bass fisherman, a sophomore at college. A member of the Saturday night bridge gang. A spouse. In the natural world, happiness may be something slowly won. In the human world, each covenant taken in advance brings comfort and happiness likewise in advance, from an arrangement warmly accepted.
Looking on the negative side of civilized circumstances, however, people who have a will of their own can be slimy, rotten hypocrites. Perhaps that is not news to you.
Individuals commonly have to decide what they absolutely swear they will do and what they promise with equal sincerity they will never do. Whatever activity it covers, that covenant beckons to hypocrisy. And then cheating.
The cheating to be dragged out of the shadows covers a range of examples: from marital infidelity to business fraud, to school cribbing to sports deception. While some of the cheaters ended up in jail, laws are not the rules that underlie everyday cheating. The fear of getting arrested by the police is very different from the unthinkable cataclysm of getting caught by someone one knows personally. Tax cheating, for example, is not emphasized in the book as much as flower-show cheating. Both emanate from the same priority on self-interest.
The finer point is that native-born Americans never specifically agree to abide by laws. Just as in the South before the Civil War, people in certain pockets of the backcountry today contend that they don’t have to follow laws they don’t like. This “nullification,” as it was once called, gives zealots an out, at least where their sense of honor is concerned. They may be crooks, moonshiners, and tax holdouts—but they aren’t cheats.
Neatly sidestepping a discussion of the individual in democracy (and whether representation itself conveys a covenant), I hold that breaking the law is not necessarily cheating.
Academic observers have expressed the opinion that everybody cheats. Lowlifes and barflies have made the same point. All men cheat. All women cheat. All lawyers cheat. All pitchers cheat. Everybody. That conclusion glistens with the cynicism that serves to protect academics as well as lowlifes. It so happens that I’m cynical, too. My credentials are irrefutable: I think the world stinks; I think we insult rats when we use their name to describe people; I am blissfully at home with early-1930s movies, the ones in which all the characters are corrupt. I know the score, as they used to say, circa 1933.
Yet I’m unable to make the statement that everybody cheats, being that I’m tinged with the same sentimentality that causes many people to point to their parents as the two individuals on earth who absolutely, resolutely never could have cheated on each other or anyone else. If we can all agree that we each have a touchstone, knowledge of one or two people who are incapable of cheating, then we can make the calculation that there must be, empirically, some number of human beings who simply are not cheaters. That is the supposition of this book. And if you who are cynical don’t bring me evidence that my selected paragons were cheating out loud every day and twice on Fridays, then I’ll leave yours alone, too. It’s an important point, because this study is as much about those who absolutely will not cheat as about those who can and then do.
Victims are also to be considered. If there are people who shirk rules that they once embraced, then there are necessarily those left behind, holding firm to the same covenant. The cheater and the cheated. The sole exception to the duality is cheating at solitaire—which is as baffling as it is surprisingly rampant. In solitaire, no one will be the wiser. Go ahead. Dig through for the last king. In every other instance, though, cheating leaves a gash in someone else’s life. The popular pap that “cheaters only cheat themselves” is so untrue that it is cruel to repeat it—except in quotes, as though held out with tongs.
“Cheaters only cheat themselves,” so satisfying as a phrase, leads to nowhere. The one covenant that is in no way implicit, the deal that individuals have with themselves, is an impression left by their sense of morality. Being so deeply personal, it occupies a wide plain, impossible to see or to map. For that reason, the great religions leave it to someone more qualified, someone ethereal, to judge whether a person has cheated him- or herself. If Mr. X’s sole desire on this mortal span is to pile up money and he manages it by nefarious means, observers would be presumptuous in the extreme to suggest in a weak and yet hopeful voice that he had only cheated himself. In the flintier world of this study, we can’t say if Mr. X cheated himself, but we can certainly accuse him of being blithely aware that he was going to rook others, even before he did so.
The corollary is less often heard, perhaps because everyone already knows it, probably from experience. It tends to remain in the system a long, long time. It’s terribly un-catchy. The corollary: “Cheaters are fully aware in advance that they are going to stomp on someone else and they do it anyway.” That epithet is the second defining factor of cheating.
If cheaters don’t all have the same basal values, neither do people who are cheated. In a whole sector of betrayal, blaming the victim is absolutely the right thing to do, because a great many cheaters are drawn by an invisible force to their own kind. Outright hypocrisy and abject hurt: the cheating in this book covers the bright ideas behind a variety of adventures. Embracing people much smarter than I and those even dumber, the goal was to look at them all on eye level.
In this particular field, famous stars are not as interesting as humans who are drawn to scale, despite the fact that celebrity scandals are a mainstay of modern life. A deluge, in fact. They don’t count herein, though, because their lives are not merely exaggerated but also skewed. In certain celebrity circles, an extra-marital affair isn’t an act of betrayal—it’s a good career move. The stubborn shadow of a happy marriage, on the other hand, has to be overcome by a team of agents and a clever publicist.
In the world of finance, even the US Treasury Department can barely trace what multinational companies are doing below-board. Or more specifically, what they are doing on those island nations with unending dunes and one office building. As to the intrinsic cheating found in super-rich families, it is far better described by America’s great novelists; start with Fitzgerald and then consult Wharton, Dreiser, and James. In most sports, uniquely, cheating doesn’t even exist—not until a player has been caught three times first.
In one bastion, politics, the ramifications were exactly the opposite of those in the celebrity world. Attitudes toward cheating were once super-normal—that is, the starchiest of standards applied to politicians, abruptly ending careers, except in rare cases when voters daintily forgave an indiscretion. That shifted in 2016, when voters who were confronted by a reflex of cheating on the part of Donald Trump admired it as a mark of strength. The new development came upon America so bluntly, it brought with it a revelation about just exactly who is the driving force behind America and cheating, an accord that has become a kinship of acceptance, embrace, and even dependence.
From Julie Fenster’s new book Cheaters Always Win: The Story of America, out December 3rd from Twelve Books. Reprinted with permission of Twelve Books. Copyright © 2019 by Julie Fenster.