A Psychotherapist Explains What's Going on Inside the Mind of a Cheater

What would compel someone to break the rules, violate trust, and risk losing it all? Well, it turns out it's more than just stupidity -- there's a psychological reason people do such things.

Understand why people cheat

Cheating is pervasive. I’ve seen it with clients over the years and it is a steady presence in the news cycle. We see it with professional athletes who break rules and alter air pressure in footballs or use illegal performance enhancement drugs. We hear way too much about cheating actors, politicians, and the general public. And the latest political figure to find himself in hot water following an affair, Governor Eric Greitens, faces continuous investigation by his own party.

With all this cheating that’s going on, one might wonder why it’s happening. Is it just that it’s easy to do so people do it or is there something happening psychologically with the offender? Actually, the answer is both. Just as there are that many more ways to meet new people, there are also that many more ways to potentially get caught. And then there are those innate characteristics and traits that lead to it.

To better understand them, let’s go back to when someone is young. There may be pressure placed on them by parents to be the best and to succeed. There may have been an emphasis on getting into the best middle school and high school. The person might see cheating on a test or plagiarizing a paper as a way to get ahead of others. Later that person might pad a resume, not fully declare income when filing taxes, or pirate music off the Internet.

Maybe for a brief moment inside the person’s head there’s some rationalization where he or she assesses the reward against the risk and deems it to be an innocent enough action and a victimless crime. They might think “everyone’s doing it, what’s the big deal?” Throw into the mix poor impulse control and you have a cheater.

Cheating on a romantic partner isn’t too different. Similar factors are at play. In many ways people have become desensitized to cheating because of its ubiquity. It has become commonplace for people in the public eye to cheat, issue a public apology, and move on from it.

Here are three primary reasons why people cheat:

1. They are emotionally and/or sexually unfulfilled at home.

People have needs and when these go unmet, they’ll find a way to satisfy them and this is done by going outside the relationship. In a moment of doubt about a partner or relationship, the grass often does look greener on the other side.

2. The thrill and excitement.

For the cheater, the sex and relationship at home might feel boring, predictable, and mundane. Someone new provides a fresh and exhilarating alternative. Adding to this: when there’s a risk of being caught, it heightens the level of excitement. It’s important to keep in mind that the new guy or gal doesn’t truly represent real life. There are no bills to worry about, no everyday stress, or dealing with kids. An affair is isolated and immune from the vulnerabilities of a true relationship.

3. It’s a learned behavior.

People learn how to deal with stress and conflict from their parents and from people in the environment around them. They also learn how to adapt to situations and how to cope. These lessons can be healthy and positive, or not so healthy such as cheating.

So, how do we stop cheating? Well, the truth is, we probably never will. As long as there is temptation, rationalization, competition, thrill and excitement seeking, and unmet needs at home, there will be those who choose not to do the right thing. We can focus though on rewarding good behavior to youngsters and reinforcing good decisions. Raising awareness of ethics, morals, and honesty will make it more difficult for some to carry out dishonest acts. Companies (and families) can issue a mission statement that makes honesty an integral and celebrated part of it. Self reflection and having a code of honesty will go a long way in making good values and ethics cool again.

For tips on dealing with challenging situations in life check out my book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com

Psychology, Advice, Stress, Emotions, Relationships, Leadership, Corporate

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