Stories about cheaters abound in the media these days and we love reading about them. We also love the happy endings where the cheaters get hauled off to jail or stripped of their titles and/or their money. Yet we get a vicarious thrill when we read about all of the clever and deceitful ways that a married professional golfer can cheat on his wife with scores of barmaids and waitresses. We marvel at the ingenuity of the professional bicycle racer who systematically injected himself with performance enhancing drugs while evading detection for years. And you have to admit that the billion dollar Ponzi scheme was the most elaborate shell game that ever existed and it was so carefully constructed that it separated a lot of very intelligent and educated people from vast amounts of their wealth. But as fascinating as these stories are, the cheaters disgust us because they got something they didn’t deserve.
I think there are basically 5 different reasons that people cheat. People who cheat on their spouses or monogamous partners, like the disgraced professional golfer, do it for big fun. It was apparently a thrill to have the ladies lining up for a romp in the back of the SUV when the wife wasn’t around. But although this behavior is frowned upon in our culture, no one other than the sainted wife really cared.
Some students cheat in order to get a grade they don’t deserve. Apparently 60-plus Harvard students cheated on a take-home exam in the spring of 2012 and the Administrative Board concluded that their work on “academic integrity” was far from done. Duh. The Committee on Academic Integrity is now considering instituting an honor code, as if that would stop a cheater from cheating. Harvard needs to man-up and call it cheating instead of “academic dishonesty” or “inappropriate collaboration” and then they need to explain to their students that cheaters don’t win in the end unless they start a social network with a billion users.
Some people cheat in order to get a job. Chemist Annie Dookhan from the Massachusetts state drug lab padded her CV with degrees she didn’t have and made-up the results of drug tests she didn’t perform in (possibly as many as) 34,000 cases. As a result, Massachusetts has released 286 convicted drug-dealers to date, who are eager to re-enter the workforce. Governor Patrick should be pleased that such a large group of people will not be going on unemployment.
Money is the most common reason that people cheat and if there is a truly enormous amount of money involved, we forgive the cheaters after we fine them. Then we admire them (if our name isn’t Winklevoss), buy stock in their social network and “friend” people we don’t even like. But if there are insufficient funds to pay the people who were cheated, then we march your Park Avenue fanny straight to the slammer.
But the scariest of all of the cheaters are the ones who do it for fame and accolades, trophies and celebrity. Not everyone wants to be able to pedal their bicycle really fast, but most people wouldn’t mind seeing millions of people wear rubber bracelets with their name on them. To be “the best” at anything isn’t even a fantasy for most people, but to be the best at something with a French name for 7 consecutive years is truly unbelievable. And sadly it was.
So what the hell is wrong with these people? Why do some people cheat and others don’t? Lots of people want big fun, good grades, interesting jobs, lots of money and fame and celebrity. But most people don’t cheat to get those things because most people wouldn’t feel good about themselves if they cheated and therefore wouldn’t enjoy the fruits of the poisonous tree. But the people who do enjoy the ill-gotten gains are the narcissists among us who have an excessive interest in themselves, a craving for admiration, a slipped disc in the ethical backbone and a desire to be someone they are not.
According to my research, “Acquired Situational Narcissism” is a narcissistic personality disorder brought on by the desire for wealth, fame and the other trappings of celebrity. A person so afflicted apparently has a “disorder” and will no doubt be entitled to federal benefits and accommodations in the not-so-distant future. But if you ask me, that is a fancy name for a loser who wants something he or she didn’t earn, doesn’t deserve, and would never be able to have without stealing it. In my day, we called that person a loser. Or a cheater. Call me old-fashioned.