Why Honest People Cheat

exam time

What would you think of someone you noticed cheating during an exam?

My guess is you’d say he was a dishonest person. He would be more willing to lie to get what he wants or steal something if he couldn’t get caught. After all, dishonesty is a part of personality, and honest people don’t cheat.

But what if you were wrong? What if honest people do cheat, depending on the situation? What if honesty, laziness, patience and extroversion were more about context and less about character?

Why Character Doesn’t Matter as Much as You Think

Psychologists even have a name for it: fundamental attribution error. It’s the tendency to assume a person’s actions are the result of the person’s character. Seeing someone cheat and assuming he is, in general, a cheater, is the perfect example.

Malcolm Gladwell shares research showing why this tendency is often wrong:

“In the late 1920s, in a famous study, the psychologist Theodore Newcomb analyzed extroversion among adolescent boys at a summer camp. He found that how talkative a boy was in one setting—say, at lunch—was highly predictive of how talkative that boy would be in the same setting in the future. … But his behavior told you almost nothing about how he would behave in a different setting: from how someone behaved at lunch, you couldn’t predict how he would behave during, say, afternoon playtime.” [emphasis mine]

The experiment has been repeated beyond summer camps. Gladwell points to a study at Carleton College which showed how neat and orderly a student was in his assignments told you almost nothing about how well-ordered his room or personal appearance were.

This is a difficult realization to make. We’re hardwired to assume that our personalities are fixed, pervasive aspects of our lives. We think of ourselves as disciplined, extroverted, scrupulous or stoic—it’s frightening to discover these parts of our identity may matter less than we thought.

The Upside of Attribution Error

The positive implication of this bias means that while our positive traits may be less solid than we imagine, our negative ones are less stubbornly entrenched as well.

Take shyness, for example. Do you consider yourself an introvert or extrovert? Most people confidently declare they are one or the other, as if it were an immutable part of their hardwiring.

However, if the previous psychological study has any bearing, introversion and extroversion aren’t as solid as we believe. They’re aggregate descriptions of how you behave in a wide variety of different contexts. They indicate the average, they don’t constrain the range.

If you see past attribution error, then, it’s easy to believe that someone could be both extremely extroverted and extremely introverted, depending on the context. I’ve definitely been described as both in different situations.

If character matters less than we believe, why let labels define you? Yes, they may describe your behavior as an aggregate, but they aren’t your destiny for every situation.

Tweaking the Specifics, Not the Big Picture

A big mistake of a lot of self-help, in my opinion, is that it puts too much focus on the big picture of personality change. Authors declare you need to change your life by first becoming a better person.

The problem is becoming a new person, at the core, is enormously difficult. Going from lazy to productive, shy to charismatic and pessimistic to optimistic take years of work and often fail. We become the story we tell ourselves, and that narrative is deeply entrenched.

However, if our behavior is more situation than disposition, it may be possible to change how we behave in one area of our life at a time. Instead of going from lazy to productive in one identity-shifting epiphany, you can become productive in one routine or task at a time.

This is the reason I’ve been obsessed with habit changes over the last seven years. Because changing a habit allows you to incrementally change who you are, how you live and the quality of your life. It doesn’t require rare spontaneous transformations, just step-by-step progress.

The reason honest people cheat is that the adjective isn’t perfect. Each of us is honest and dishonest, lazy and disciplined, clumsy and adept, insecure and confident. The more we accept plurality in our personality, the less we let those labels bind us.

Image thanks to comedy_nose

  • Keri

    Great post. I love your point about shyness– I consider myself an introvert, and I do love spending time alone. But in certain settings, I’m not an introvert at all.

    I don’t really believe in handwriting analysis, but there’s an interesting theory in it, that if you change the way you write, it can change your personality for the better. So you do writing exercises to write a certain way and improve yourself. It’s somewhat analogous to your theory of changing one habit at a time to change your entire self, which I believe truly works.

  • Valentino

    …and what about integrity?

  • Scott Young


    I’m not arguing character *doesn’t* exist, just that we have a fundamental bias to assume it matters more than it does.

    One only has to look at the Milgram experiment or Stanford Prison Study to notice that, although morality certainly exists, how moral we are is highly influenced by context not just personality.


    Just because that is unsettling or non-obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t true.


  • Miguel Guzman

    Hi Scott!

    May I disagree a little bit? While I agree that the context is of utmost importance, I also think that with some techniques (NLP, for instance) you can make quick changes to your base personality and beliefs – like, say, with a personal history change – and these changes then reflect upon your behavior.

    That’s why I always talk about change in terms of “symptomatic change” at the level of context, environment, behavior and so on, that with time permeates upwards to the higher levels; and “etiological changes” at the higher levels like beliefs, identity, and so on, that can be fixed quickly (with proper technique, it’s not enough to say “from now on I’m a productive person!”) and which permeate downwards to the behavior and environment level.

    For instance when considering phobias, symptomatic change would be achieved by systematic desensitization (progressive exposure), while etiological change would be achieved by removing or changing the memory that provokes the phobia via NLP history change or reimprinting. The latter sometimes work and sometimes doesn’t – it depends on the phobia being caused by a specific memory that can be targeted for a reimprinting -, but when it works is quick and lasting.

    In my worldview both types of changes work wonders when applied together. For instance taking the habit of going to the gym every day (symptomatic, behavioral) while doing visualizations and affirmations about having a great chiseled body (etiological, belief & identity). Full change power 🙂

    BTW, it’s been a long time since I commented here last time, you knew me before as Wulfen, from Spain. Best regards!

  • Scott Young


    While NLP undoubtedly has some useful ideas, it’s far from experimentally verified. In fact, in double blind studies a lot of NLP turns out to be no more than placebo effect.

    That doesn’t mean I’m entirely against NLP, just that I don’t really take it as a strong argument to refute a different therapeutic method.

    I do think that identity matters and that the beliefs underlying that identity are a critical part of how we view the world. You can’t ignore that.

    However, I *am* arguing that the human capacity for compartmentalizing beliefs, living with contradictions in principle and general acting on hypothetical, rather than categorical, imperatives is underestimated and this has been empirically observed in the studies I mentioned.

  • Salman

    There are character traits, based on some values (religious, moral, ethical, etc.) which, mostly, regardless of context, cause an individual’s behavior to remain unchanged. Then there are personality traits, which, according to context, are altered, and are consciously alterable. Now, there is a problem since both get mixed quite frequently. To identify one from the other on a conscious level and then to make amendments in certain traits is very difficult.
    The bigger problem is that one gets “labeled” just because he/she may have acted in a certain way in a given context / situation. There come extremes where a certain behavior of a person got him/ her a label which causes them immense trouble in their lives.
    Again, needless to say (but I’ll say it anyways :), a very insightful article.

  • ah

    related police & psychologist investigation indicated that most people will commit crime under certain situation……

    many think that they are so-called good people, without realized that probably by chance, they did not come across those certain situation……

    human is complex creature, and it is too simple to classify human by either good or bad, etc !!

  • John Gies


    As usual I enjoyed your post. You tend to present a more nuanced view than many bloggers. I have to challenge the premise that cheating is all about context. That’s like the student that said. “I lie but I am not a liar.” You either are or you are not. You may have what you believe to be moral reasons to cheat of lie (think Schindler of Schindler’s list as one extreme example. But you are either a cheater or you are not.

    Does it matter. I think so. Trust has weight and value. If that trust is betrayed then how can I have an open and honest relationship with the liar or cheater in the future?

    Take Good Care,

  • Zeth Addington

    Puh, this comment turned out longer than I’d planned…

    Anyways, this is spot on the thoughts I’ve been having about personal development lately. I’m coming to believe that we really have no real identity; that this concept is simply a way of summarizing our collective set of behaviours: There are no strong or weak people, but some people’s ‘public’ actions seem stronger than others, causing them to be viewed this way. This is mainly because human mental capacity is limited, and so, we need to compress and simplify information to have any chance of remembering and using it..

    But while behaviour in one situation might not be generalizable to other situations, this doesn’t explain how we behave towards novel situations. I believe that there is a two-way exchange taking place between the individuals behaviour and it’s “mind/self-perception thing” which influence behaviour:
    So, there’s really strong evidence that human memory is kind of funky, right? We don’t remember like a hard disk by going back to a certain memory, and then recalling that perfectly. Remembering is more like recalling fractured traces of events, and then piecing a story together from them and filling in the blanks with general knowledge and expectations.

    I believe we do the same with our self-perception. That our identity is not fixed, but that we constantly have to re-remind ourselves of *who we are*, and that this self perception then influences how we react to novel situations. “Hey, I remember being brave when dangerous stuff happens, so I must be pretty brave. I better react bravely to this new situation.” I believe memory is just one of the components we use to construct our self-perception; clothing, posture, voice, the way people react to us, all combine to create our sense of self, and we then seek to live in to that role.

    I think it’s still up for graps whether we really are *hard-wired* to think of ourselves in personality categories. How would a caveman who didn’t possess words like extroverted or brave view himself. I think it’s more of a cultural thing, and maybe a negative one, probably most so if you see yourself as a loser.

  • Zeth Addington

    Oh, and let me add that some habits definitely have greater pay-offs than others: Learning to regularly probe yourself for whether what you are doing is actually productive, is probably more effective than learning to organize your desktop…

  • Justin | Mazzastick

    We are who we are and each situation may bring out a different side of our personality.

    Labels came out of a need for the mind to put everyone and everything into neat little categories.

  • Scott Young


    My post isn’t a defense of dishonesty or cheating. Rather it’s an explanation that our character traits are both more fragmented (that they exist in specific habits, not generalized principles) and that they have less influence than we commonly ascribe.

    I’m not a moral relativist and I completely agree with you that trust and honesty are required, and required consistently to have good relationships.


    I think you can probably classify people as good or bad in the aggregate. I would definitely argue that Hitler was a bad person and Gandhi was good.

    My point is that those character traits are less predictive than we might think across different behaviors. Hitler was purportedly a vegetarian, despite committing atrocities.


    I’m not saying personality doesn’t exist, just that overarching labels like extrovert are inherently a simplification for an aggregate of different behaviors over time.

    As for identity, I’d suggest reading Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennet on philosophy of consciousness, both make convincing and detailed arguments that the self is an elaborate, but necessary, fiction.


  • Mark

    “Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
    Watch your words, for they become actions.
    Watch your actions, for they become habits.
    Watch your habits, for they become character.
    Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

    Great post Scott. I think we certainly focus too much on personality “traits” and labels, rather than the sum habits of individuals – and groups. We only need to look at – unfortunately – politics to see that such labels of groups and individuals are almost worthless when they’re so strongly believed in. What really matters is the collected habits of said groups or individuals.

  • juliana

    love the last posts, especially the quotes from research.
    i also like the underlying message, how it makes us want to see things in a way that we could improve our lives. love it.

  • Victoria

    Hi Scott,

    I really like your work, and it left me for the better today. Thank you for writing.