Why do people cheat?

Do you cheat?

Let me be more specific. After all – there’s cheating and then there’s fudging a little, right?

  • Did you ever cheat in school?
  • Did you ever cheat at a game?
  • Do you rationalize cutting corners?
  • Did you ever cheat in a relationship, and how “far” is cheating?

How do you define cheating?

No, I’m not going to address the issue of marriage and infidelity. It’s complex, and deserves a discussion on its own. I am asking questions about values and behaviors. Cheating in a relationship is a matter of definition (like cheating at anything) and just one example of stepping beyond social norms of what we should and shouldn’t do.

I’m asking because I’m curious. I’m asking you as an individual. I’m also asking as a parent – and addressing you, as parents. Because we set examples by our behavior, not to mention the disconnects between what we say and what we actually do.

Do you make distinctions between cheating and fudging a little? Only in certain circumstances? Is an ace up your sleeve cheating, or just planning for contingencies?

Good girls, bad girls, the “good girl syndrome”

I’ve been looking at my own behaviors lately. And my belief system. Tossing my preconceived (and conditioned) notions into the air to see how they land, then poking around in the scramble of my usual frameworks trying to uncover new ways to think, perceive, act, and accomplish. Why? It seems to me that I’m expending tremendous energy getting nowhere. That means I need to change what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, or both.

Is there a Good Girl Syndrome? If not, there ought to be. I’ve been pondering my “good girl” past. Yes, I was one of those. Never lied. Never cut school. Never cheated. Always did as I was told. Always followed the rules. I learned very late in life that most people do lie, cut corners, outright cheat, and many make their own rules – causing destruction in their wake (leaving others to clean up).

And they were not vulnerable as I was. They were not an easy mark.  In fact, not only were the “bad girls” (and bad boys) having much more fun, they were more successful, in all ways.

Why do people cheat?

Why do people cut in line, cut corners, and disregard rules as though they don’t apply in their case? Is it the desire to win at all cost? Is it narcissism? Some unique combination of ingredients that creates a sense of entitlement, mixed and percolated in childhood, then ingrained in routine adult behavior?

What about those like me – following the rules, still believing in “the system,” in Karma, in nose-to-the-grindstone hard work to earn the fruits of our labor? When some follow rules and others don’t, you no longer have a level playing field. Those who don’t cut corners lag behind. And then what?

What do we teach our children about cheating?

As adults, do you “cut corners” when you can? In some instances? Only if your back is up against the wall? Do you move the golf ball in the sand trap when no one’s looking? Profit from the cashier’s mistake at the checkout line that gives you an extra $10?

As parents, how do we deal with issues of cheating? And those murky areas of “cheating by omission” (like the $10 example above)? What do you do when you see your child cut in line or try to get away with a foul in sports? What about those “cheat codes” in video games that our kids access to bypass levels where they’re stuck?

Do we judge those things differently than cheating on a test, or stealing an idea for a paper? Is there a spectrum of cheating that we teach through our behaviors and our terminology? Including:

  • Fudging
  • Cutting corners
  • Everyone does it
  • Taking advantage of an opportunity
  • Dog eat dog world.

Value systems, personal integrity

I’ve learned a few things in the past eight years, as I’ve tried to hold together my house of cards through layoffs, financial problems, an expensive and ineffective legal system, and societal frameworks that no longer fit.

In some ways, I do make my own rules. Now. And I fudge a few things, in the hope of being able to take care of my family. My age, for one, as I look for work.

When I make my own rules, it has to do with seeking creative solutions within a structure of ethics that I stick to rigorously, despite everything. Because it is who I am. And I cannot compromise my integrity or I shall be lost in a world that is – let’s face it – a bit lost. Or is that just moral relativism? Am I rationalizing my own behavior?

And you?

  • Do you cheat?
  • Do you “cut corners?”
  • Only in certain circumstances?
  • Do you justify your actions in some instances, and not in others?
  • How do you explain these distinctions to your children?

© D A Wolf



  1. says

    I do not cheat, and am constantly surprised by how often and how easily many people do. My husband calls it one of my great vulnerabilities – assuming that everyone else is a rule-follower and being shocked when they’re not.

    As a teacher, I was floored time and again when I caught students cheating. How casually they attempted to pass off someone else’s work as their own.

    I suppose I do fudge, though. Nibbling my nails after swearing for the umpteenth time that I’ve quit biting. Having an extra helping of dessert instead another serving of greens.

    I justify those slips as being flexible and resilient in a fungible world, but maybe I’m more comfortable with rigidity… and, apparently, with rambling in your comments section.

    Thanks, BLW, for another thought-provoking set of questions.

  2. BigLittleWolf says

    Ah… we are kindred spirits then. Your response has me smiling.

    However, as to “rambling” – you aren’t! And why does everyone assume that a thoughtful (and therefore non-snippet) response is rambling? If that’s rambling, I say we need more of it not less.

    Perhaps that’s a post. When a ramble is a good thing – a journey or words that we will all enjoy, and from which to benefit. Have we lost our ability to read or process anything but a sound bite?

    Please “ramble” – you always express cohesive and interesting thoughts as do most of those who comment here. And it’s all good.

  3. says

    I cheated my entire way through every fucking math class in middle school and high school. Shamelessly. My parents throttled me if I made anything lower than a B in any subject, and, sorry!!!! I am a moron at numbers.

    The only way I can live with myself is that I did go in for extra help and do every scrap of homework; I just was too stupid to understand the stuff.

    Now? I don’t cheat at anything I know of. I do lie, but usually to save myself grief or preserve someone’s feelings… and I don’t lie about anything truly important.

    Fudging. I like that term. Yeah.

  4. says

    I never cheat. Never. And I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing. I think there are times in life when it is okay to cut corners, to find the easier route. I just don’t do it. Not sure why.

    I do sometimes feel like I am “cheating” on Husband insofar as I am constantly running off to pry open my laptop and check in on this world. Call it the blogosphere affair!

  5. BigLittleWolf says

    Oh Kitch! I have a feeling you are not alone – just more honest than most… and those white lies, yes, that’s a related (but whole other) story…

  6. crnnoel says

    The only time I can really think of is when I was dating three different guys in college, and they didn’t know, ha! But I thought of it as just not telling the whole truth, as we never had that conversation…
    I’m sure there have been a few unknown cheats, like scoring the extra few bucks at the grocery store or whatnot, but that’s about it. I haven’t even thought that far yet… same goes for talking about trying drugs and whatnot. Do not even want to go there… but for better or worse those moments will be here soon enough… thanks for getting me thinking!

  7. says

    I am a basically honest person who, like you, was a “good girl” in the past. Being a good girl does not serve me in today’s world. I expect everyone else to have the same values as I do, and when they don’t I’m left scratching my head and feeling left out. Most of my romantic relationships have ended with my partner cheating on me. Was I too naive and vulnerable or were they unable to live with my being too honest for them? I agree with you that narcissists are attracted to the good girls for whatever reason. I am learning to watch what people do to learn about their character instead of listening to them tell about who they think they are.

  8. says

    I don’t think it’s fair to compare “good girls/bad girls” with cheaters. Being a “good kid” just means you follow your parents rule system, or the one adopted by your community. Is that rule system the same in other places? Probably not. While I’m not espousing immorality, I will say a life that explores the dark as well as the light has more depth.

    As for cheating – I don’t cheat. I will tug a shirt in competitive sports, which I guess is fudging the rules a bit. But a clean and level playing field is best. It’s more about testing yourself, examining your own life.

  9. STR says

    I do not cheat. The few times I have, I actually felt as if the world were out of balance until I make it right again. Amazingly, my ethics about cheating do not come from my religious upbringing (hell, fire and brimstone), rather from my understanding of karma and the greater meaning in life. Sometimes I wonder whether my life’s challenge is to maintain integrity in a world of religious hypocrisy where cheating is the norm.

  10. says

    Once, when I was about eight, a cashier gave me too much change for some candy. My dad made me return it. I was mortified. He just explained, “You can’t be too honest.” And I was also a Good Girl. I did not cheat in school. Or in relationships. Or anything. Then I became a Bad Girl for a while. And I was in a bad relationship and cheating was easier than doing the honest thing. (Still never cheated in school, though. A weird distinction. But that’s me. Nerd.) But that stage ended. Age? Motherhood? Stability? And now I rarely “cheat” or engage in behavior I feel the need to justify with a lot of words. (I can’t say I “never” do these things, because I am certainly fallible. And sometimes tired.) But my dad’s simple explanation has stuck with me. I never thought I’d do it, but I’ve cycled back to my parents’ values. (Mostly. They don’t have any piercings.) I’m going to be thinking about this for a while now.

  11. says

    I was a good girl too. No cheating, no lying, no stealing. I still can’t lie, even those little white lies to preserve someone’s feelings and it seems to get me into more trouble than I would like. The question for me is: where is the line? And what is the benefit of crossing it?

    For example: what is cheating in a marriage? we tend to draw the line at sex but are there other forms? if we betray our partner’s trust by giving any part of ourselves to someone else, including our minds, is that cheating? the lines are just not clear enough.

    choosing a partner by his/her character makes sense to me too. lining up my lines with his lines so that we have a clear understanding of what is/isn’t acceptable within the bounds of our relationship.

    choosing friends with similar values and letting them know when something makes you uncomfortable with the spirit of opening up dialogue makes sense to me too.

    so much to think about. thank you for posting this.

  12. BigLittleWolf says

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Someone I was reading online, a few weeks back – a relationship expert I believe – said the most helpful words of advice I’d ever heard. Ever. I only wish I could remember WHO it was who said this – I would love to give her the applause for it, and a shout out.

    I’m paraphrasing: Choose a long term partner based on character, rather than personality.

    Sounds simple, right? Another way to think of it is something I’ve tried to do – choosing by common values and priorities – over personality. That doesn’t mean there aren’t personality attributes that really mesh and matter for each of us, but there has to be a shared set of core values. Or better put – character. And in this world, a man or woman of character is not always easy to recognize.

    Of course, sometimes we “good girls” are easily fooled. Narcissists readily recognize what we want to hear, say it, and then take what they can get. Been there, done that. And hope my vision and gut are more finely tuned now than 20 years ago.

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