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David Callahan’s books include The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead and The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age.

A fishing tournament in Ohio erupted into anger recently when the competition’s director cut open the top catch and found lead weights inside it. “Get out of here!” he shouted at a pair of fisherman who were poised to snag a US$29,000 grand prize. Both were disqualified, and on Wednesday were indicted on multiple counts – including cheating.

Cheating is back in the news. Again.

In recent weeks, cheating scandals also rocked the worlds of chess, poker, and even dancing competitions in Ireland, where teachers and judges were accused of fixing the outcomes. That sounded odd until I dug into the details and learned that dance schools that win competitions can charge more in fees. Now things made sense.

Cheating occurs in obscure niches with seemingly minor stakes, like that fishing tournament in Ohio. And in big venues: A New York Times investigation revealed last week that top U.S. health insurers were defrauding Medicare to the tune of US$12-billion to US$25-billion a year.

Cheating is usually about money, but not always. People are competitive and some will do anything to win, even when there’s no monetary reward. Consider golfers cheating when playing against friends, which is said to be common. That’s about pride and a reflexive zeal to get the upper hand.

A thirst for status can also drive cheating, such as when a long list of wealthy Americans paid bribes to get their kids into prestigious universities a few years ago.

Whatever the motives, one thing seems clear: There’s a lot of cheating these days. And while reliable data are hard to come by, some evidence – such as IRS estimates of tax evasion – suggests there’s more cheating in our era than in previous ones. Cheating has also penetrated into more corners of society. Familiar types of cheating – such as corporate fraud and academic dishonesty – are not only more pervasive, but the past two decades have seen scandals across the sports world (remember football’s “deflategate” or Lance Armstrong’s doping?) and in areas that might seem above such behaviour, e.g., the brainy world of chess.

Is all this cheating just part of the human condition? Is it really worse now, or are we only hearing more about cheating because of better detection efforts? And what about fixing the problem: Are there underlying drivers at work that we can address with smart reforms?

I’ve thought about these questions for 20 years, since I started researching my 2004 book, The Cheating Culture. And here’s my short answer: Yes, the desire to get an edge is human and maybe even hardwired into us. But whether we act unethically on that impulse is determined by three major factors: financial incentives, the likelihood of getting caught and cultural norms.

Because of changes in our economy and society over recent decades, all these factors have aligned to bring out the ethical worst in us. Put simply, cheating has become more rational.

Let’s start with the money. We live in a time of sky-high inequality where the rewards for winners are bigger than ever before in almost every profession you can think of. For example, top baseball players today make more money in a single year than guys like Willie Mays made in a lifetime. Corporate chief executives, who used to make 30 or 40 times what the average worker makes, now earn more than 300 times more. Top tournament fisherman can earn several million dollars from a sport that most of us think of as a hobby, while some top chess players have amassed multimillion-dollar fortunes. The world’s highest earning poker player is said to be worth US$200-million.

Given those huge rewards, it makes sense from a risk-benefit analysis that more people would cut corners to get to the top. It’s not that cheating is new in any of the arenas lately hit by scandals; it’s that the incentives to cheat have soared, with predictable results.

Even as the carrots for winners have gotten bigger, the sticks for economic losers have hit harder – which also incentivizes cheating. Fifty years ago, a worker without a college degree could achieve a middle-class standard of living on a single paycheque. Not any more. Wages for ordinary workers have stagnated since the 1970s as most income gains have gone to top earners. Health and housing costs have skyrocketed. Jobs with benefits are harder to come by. Now, even two-income households where both partners have a college degree can find themselves struggling.

You really don’t want to screw up or fall behind in today’s Darwinian economy. So is it any wonder that cheating is pervasive in both high schools and colleges? That includes elite institutions, such as Dartmouth Medical School, where 17 students were accused of cheating last year on remote exams. And, who knows, maybe some of those parents who paid bribes to get their kids into top colleges weren’t motivated by status at all. Maybe they were truly scared that their children wouldn’t able to achieve financial security without graduating from a name-brand school.

Or think of all the cheating by real estate agents, appraisers and loan officers in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis. Wall Streeters rightly get blamed for hawking risky mortgage-backed securities, but more minor players also acted unethically, pushing through “liar loans” and fraudulent property appraisals. Many later said they had cheated to keep their jobs and pay their bills. Cheating wasn’t about getting rich; it was about getting by. Another thing they said is that “everyone else was doing it.”

Which brings me to a second driver of cheating: sleeping watchdogs. When nobody is enforcing the rules, people are more likely to break those rules.

The go-go mortgage market of the early 2000s is a prime example of that. Real estate appraisers could fabricate numbers because that profession was so lightly regulated. Loan officers didn’t worry about bank oversight that had been hollowed out by deregulation. And one reason that none of those Wall Streeters went to prison for peddling garbage to investors is that much of what they did was perfectly legal, thanks to the handiwork of industry lobbyists.

A similar story played out in professional cycling in the 1990s. Some cyclists who later came clean about doping offered a simple explanation for their behaviour: Cheaters easily got away with it because of lax drug testing. With so many cyclists doping, those who didn’t found themselves at a disadvantage. Steroid-using baseball players have said the same thing: Because juicing up was so pervasive, it established a new floor for competition.

Variations of the “everyone else is doing it” excuse crop up again and again across different spheres of cheating. Nobody wants to be a chump who plays by the formal rules when other people are playing by the “real” rules.

Put all these drivers of cheating together – bigger carrots, sharper sticks, sleeping watchdogs – and it’s easy to see why cheating could become pervasive, and then normalized, in a given area. When cheating is just the “way things are,” more people will cheat.

That’s especially true when cheating is rampant at the very top of our society. If we’re constantly hearing about corporate fraud or rich people cheating on their taxes or star athletes who are doping, and if we rarely see any of those people get punished, we might logically wonder: “Why should I be an angel?”

When rich and powerful people break the rules with impunity, which happens constantly nowadays, it rends the social contract. Low trust in elites and institutions of all kinds is one outcome. Another is rampant cynicism and bad behaviour on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The fish rots from the head down.

How we do reverse this spiral? I wish I knew. In the 18 years since I published my book, things have only gotten worse, with the rise of Donald Trump – a business fraudster, tax evader, and yes, cheater at golf – serving as an exclamation point of trends that have been gaining steam since the 1980s.

To be sure, important reforms have been enacted to clean up different industries, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to boost oversight of CEOs and accountants, or the Dodd-Frank Act to better police Wall Street, or tougher drug testing in various sports. Some professions, such as medicine, have also tightened their ethical codes to prevent conflicts of interest that hurt patients or consumers. High schools and colleges are doing more to crack down on academic dishonesty.

But few of these reforms get at the deeper drivers behind our cheating culture. Inequality and economic insecurity are still pervasive. Many government watchdogs can barely do their jobs, after years of budget cuts.

Meanwhile, despite the trauma of a global pandemic, no new sense of common purpose has emerged to offset our era’s emphasis on extreme individualism. Too many of us still feel like we’re on our own – that if we don’t do what it takes to get ahead, or to just survive, nobody will catch us when we fall.

Cheating isn’t new. But our cheating culture is new. It’s a byproduct of extreme capitalism and the values that go with this system. Ultimately, to get less cheating we need to find a better, more humane way to manage our economy and society.

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