Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Texas at Austin have determined that hormones play a dual role in establishing and reinforcing unethical behaviors, such as cheating. According to the findings, the endocrine system first elevates hormonal levels predictive of cheating, followed by an altered level of hormones while cheating that reinforces the act.

Cheating And Hormones

Cheating scandals are a matter of major concern, whether on college campuses or in the form of a huge financial fraud. These occurrences amount to more than $3.7 trillion in losses every year. Researchers decided to investigate the influence of hormones in such acts, specifically the male reproductive hormone testosterone, and the stress hormone cortisol.

Corresponding author Robert Josephs, UT Austin’s Professor of Psychology, stated that the association of hormones with behavior had been recognized as early as the 19th century – the power and persuasive nature exerted by the endocrine system on human behavior is a rather new and intriguing discovery.

Establishing The Dual Role Of The Endocrine System

The study enrolled 117 participants who were given a math test. They had to complete the test, grade it themselves, and self-report their scores (more specifically the number of correctly answered questions). The more correct answers they had, the more money they would receive.

Researchers collected salivary samples from the participants prior to and after the test. They observed that the individuals with heightened levels of testosterone and cortisol were more likely to exaggerate the number of correct answers. Josephs explained that elevated levels of testosterone reduce the fear of punishment and increase sensitivity to rewards. High levels of cortisol, on the other hand, are associated with creating a distressful state of chronic stress.

Hormones Influence Unethical Behavior

In short, the study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General reveals that testosterone encourages the act of cheating, while cortisol provides a reason for the unethical act.

The study also showed that participants who misrepresented their scores had decreased levels of cortisol and reported a decrease in emotional stress after the test was over. Josephs explained this phenomenon as follows – the reduction in stress is accompanied by a strong stimulation of reward centers in the brain. Thus, a combination of physiological and changes leads to the unfortunate act of reinforcing unethical behaviors.

Finding A Solution

An important aspect is that neither hormone caused the unethical behavior alone – both testosterone and cortisol were found to work collaboratively. Thus, decreasing the levels of either could help prevent unethical acts urges from practically manifesting. Previous studies have shown that tasks rewarding groups instead of individuals can remove the influence of testosterone, and stress-relieving exercises, such as meditation and yoga help keep cortisol levels under control.

“Our study concludes that appeals based on ethics and morality (the carrot approach) and those based on threats of punishment (the stick approach) may not be effective in preventing cheating”, said Josephs “By understanding the underlying causal mechanism of cheating, we might be able to design interventions that are both novel and effective”.