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Sometimes Cheats Do Prosper

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Payoff for Cheating

“Cheats never prosper” is a proverb that dates back to at least the 17th century; along with “Honesty is the best policy,” such sayings seem rather quaint in today's world. The rewards for cheating and dishonesty prove an irresistible motivation for many people even if they get caught sometimes.

Cheating always pays off unless exposed.

Cheating always pays off unless exposed.

A Random Selection of Cheating

Here's an interesting headline from Cable News Network in December 2020: “West Point Faces Worst Cheating Scandal in Decades.” So, among the cadets at America's elite military academy cheating has happened before.

The recent example had 73 cadets cheating on a calculus exam; giving the middle finger to the academy’s celebrated honor code. But a worse scandal happened at West Point in 1976 when 153 cadets were caught cheating on an electrical exam. Before that, in 1951, 90 cadets were booted out of the academy for exam cheating.

In 2016, the Panama Papers leak blew wide open a scheme through which corporations and wealthy individuals cheat on taxes. Shell companies are opened in places such as Monaco, the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, and others where officials can be relied upon to ignore where funds are coming from.

Economist James Henry of The Tax Justice Network says “There may be as much as $32 trillion of hidden financial assets held offshore by high-net-worth individuals . . .”

Athletes have become notorious cheats.

  • Baseball pitcher Joe Niekro was caught scuffing the ball with sandpaper to give him an edge.
  • Rosie Ruiz “won” the Boston Marathon by joining the race half a mile before the finish line.
  • The Spanish Paralympic Basketball team won the 2000 gold medal until it was discovered that 10 of the 12 players were not disabled at all, just pretending to be.
  • Dora Ratjen won the women's Olympic high jump gold medal in 1936, but Dora was actually Heinrich, a man.
  • Then, there were the legions of juiced athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs—Lance Armstrong (cycling), Jose Canseco (baseball), Lyle Alzado (football), Carl Lewis (running), and many, many more.

But, these are just the ones who got caught or confessed after their careers were over.

It isn't all about hauling in millions, billions, and trillions. Jake Runyan and Chase Cominsky tried to cheat at a Lake Erie walleye fishing tournament. In September 2022, they were discovered stuffing lead weights into the fish they had caught to try to win the prize of $29,000.

Open wide, here comes your lead weight supper.

Open wide, here comes your lead weight supper.

Why Do We Cheat?

There's an old expression that says, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Bending, or even braking rules, to gain a competitive advantage seems to be hard-wired into humans.

That's the conclusion of David Callahan. He wrote The Cheating Culture in 2004 and notes that “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.”

When the results are posted—whether it's the tournament scores, academic achievements, election results, or sales figures—nobody wants to be second and labelled “the first of the losers.”

There's also the everybody-is-doing-it argument. We see that clearly in professional sports where the spoils of victory go to those who finish first. If bribing event judges, sabotaging competitors, and boosting performance with drugs are what everybody else is doing you'd be a chump not to do the same.

This is also apparent in other fields of endeavour. A hedge fund manager may cut ethical corners to outperform competitors, thereby gaining more investors and gathering in a big, fat Christmas bonus.

Plagiarizing the work of someone else might deliver better grades and higher-paying job offers on graduation. You can be Mr. Clean and end up with gig employment with little money. Who wants that?

None of this makes it right to cheat, it just explains how people rationalize it.

A little extra help in the exam.

A little extra help in the exam.

Motives for Cheating

David Callahan notes that “whether we act unethically . . . is determined by three major factors: financial incentives, the likelihood of getting caught, and cultural norms.”

It's usually about money. Baseball players with multi-million-dollar contracts have found they can extend their careers by two or three years if they pump up on steroids.

Corporate leaders used to make 30 to 40 times the average salary of a worker; now, the multiple is more than 300 times. So, many people with a loose grasp on ethics are prepared to do whatever it takes to get into the executive suite, even if that means trampling on a few people.

Callahan writes that “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.”

In the lead up to the financial crisis of 2008, money managers made billions by misrepresenting dodgy investments as secure. While, millions of people lost their life savings and their homes, the bankers walked away with their wallets stuffed to overflowing and not a single one went to prison.

Securities watchdogs, whose ranks had been thinned by government cutbacks, were unable to prevent the cheating. Similarly, anti-doping agencies can't keep up with chemists who find new ways of masking drugs taken by athletes. If the rules are not being enforced there's little danger of getting caught.

Do cultural norms deter cheaters? It seems not. Many people look to opinion leaders for moral guidance, but they've been found wanting as ethical role models. Over and over again people in politics, business, entertainment, sports, and other fields including religion—yes, even religion—have been unmasked as cheats.

As the saying goes “The fish rots from the head.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Former U.S. President Donald Trump is a serial cheater. His niece, Mary Trump, says he grasps “cheating as a way of life.” He has cheated on his wives numerous times yet the strong endorsement of the Christian right helped him win the 2016 presidential election. Isn't there a commandment about not committing adultery?
  • Eight Asian badminton players were thrown out of the London Olympics in 2012 for deliberately losing matches. The strategy was used to ensure being drawn against weaker teams in the knock-out phase of the contest.
  • The FBI is currently investigating health care fraud committed by doctors, insurance providers, and patients that may involve an estimated $80 billion.
  • The musical Les Misérables is based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same name. In the musical, the innkeeper Thénardier offers a masterclass on how he cheats his customers.


© 2022 Rupert Taylor