Let’s face it, we’ve all been wondering why so many rich, successful, powerful people are cheating, lying, disgraces. Is it that only unethical people make it to the top? At least one study indicates that this is not the case—it’s that winning itself makes people behave unethically.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences just published a study that does not bode well for humanity’s future. Scientists at Ben-Gurion University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem had participants in a psychological study participate in a series of games, the first of which determined a “winner,” and the second of which let that winner decide how much money they could award themselves. They found that competition winners cheated, awarding themselves more money than they deserved.
The games all involved two players playing against each other. In the first experiments, the participants played simple memory or identification games. They were told whether they were the winner or the loser, and if they won, they were given a pair of ear buds for a prize.
They were then given a new partner and told to play a new game. Each player, in turn, rolled a pair of dice. Each game had a total possible winnings of twelve shekels, and, depending on what they rolled, the player would take a certain amount. If they rolled a seven, the most common outcome, they’d get half the money and their opponent would get the other half. If they rolled an eight, they’d get more and their competitor would get less.
This game had a twist no casino would accept. Only the roller of the dice got to see what they had rolled. Everyone had to accept their claims of what they rolled, including the scientists.
Fortunately, the scientists didn’t need to rely on what the rollers reported, because dice games have well-established probabilities. Although individual players can, by chance, roll unusually high or unusually low scores, aggregate reported rolls should have hovered around a score seven. In the case of winners, it did not. After they won a competition, participants’ reported scores averaged 8.75. In fact, when the participants were only asked to recall winning a competition before playing the game, their reported scores went up to 8.89. In comparison, losers’ claimed scores were 6.35 and 7.16, respectively.
The dishonest behavior didn’t come solely from winning—it came from feeling like a winner. When the scientists had pairs of people participate in a lottery to win a set of ear buds, the winners’ reported scores in the subsequent game of dice plunged down to 6.0.
It’s impossible to know exactly what was going on in the minds of those cheating winners. The scores were kept private, so the researchers weren’t able to differentiate between people who had a good roll or two and people who lied.
The team did conduct a quick study in which they tested a plausible theory. They asked a group of people to either recall winning a competition or recall a time when they achieved a personal goal, and then had them fill out a survey designed to judge their sense of entitlement. Recalling a win in a competition pumped up their sense of entitlement more than remembering achieving a personal goal—at least on paper. The researchers concluded that, while other explanations are possible, it’s likely that winning and a sense of entitlement go hand in hand.
As for what this means for society, “Social status is defined in reference to others within the society and often triggers social comparisons,” the researchers wrote in the introduction to their paper. “An important factor separating members of the upper classes from those of the lower classes is the extent to which individuals have won the competitions they have encountered in their lives (winning either by their own merit or due to their social class).”
The conclusion is especially apt:
It is difficult to overstate the importance of competition in advancing economic growth, technological progress, wealth creation, social mobility, and greater equality. At the same time, however, it is vital to recognize the role of competition in eliciting censurable conduct. A greater tendency toward unethicality on the part of winners, as our findings indicate, is likely to impede social mobility and equality, exacerbating disparities in society rather than alleviating them.