I will begin with a joke I discovered in a great article called “Why We Lie” in the Wall Street Journal (please read the whole article when you get a chance):
A man loses his bike (apropos, no?) outside his synagogue and goes to his rabbi for advice. “Next week come to services, sit in the front row,” the rabbi tells the man, “and when we recite the Ten Commandments, turn around and look at the people behind you. When we get to ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ see who can’t look you in the eyes. That’s your guy.” After the next service, the rabbi is curious to learn whether his advice panned out. “So, did it work?” he asks the man. “Like a charm,” the man answers. “The moment we got to ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ I remembered where I left my bike.”
As Dan Ariely’s article explains, “what this little joke suggests is that simply being reminded of moral codes has a significant effect on how we view our own behavior.”
So I ask you all, given the biggest news stories of this week center around a big fat liar and a bigger, fatter cheater, how do the ridiculous Manti Te’o and Lance StrongArm stories affect how we view our own behavior?
Well?And lost in the lights of the Oprahtastic and Courician spectacles, it should also be noted that the first wave of Steroid enhanced baseball players were emphatically denied entry to Cooperstown last week by those with votes. For now, a generation of cheaters in MLB face at least some repercussions for their actions…though most perpetrators still made more money in their playing careers than the GDP of many third world nations.
And more recently, beloved Beyoncé apparently cheated too. While lip syncing is nothing new, it seems we all expect more from the likes of Mrs. Z.
It is said that “Cheaters never prosper.” Another classic adage is “You’re only cheating yourself.”
I mean, maybe if Emmett Fitz-Hume, Austin Millbarge and such caricatures are the basis for argument, I could be convinced. (It should be noted that though Fitz-Hume and Millbarge made out pretty well in the end despite their cheating, they were actually given a death sentence after being caught, and through sheer dumb luck and Hollywood scriptwriting, sidestepped every peril thrown their way).
Looking around our world, any non-naïve person quickly comes to a Dr. Gregory House conclusion that everybody lies…and quickly takes it a step further, because it is abundantly clear and glaringly obvious that EVERYBODY CHEATS. Cheating and lying go hand in hand. To successfully cheat, one must lie…from the very inception of a plan to cheat, until a cheater’s dying day. Not all liars cheat, but all cheaters lie. And the better the liar, the more diabolical and greater in scope the cheating can be.
But before cheaters make their lies public, they first must convince themselves that the act of cheating is ok…even justified…in their own eyes. In many cases, they must lie to themselves. This process is known as rationalization. There are many possible rationalizations for an act of cheating, from “it’s only a game,” and “everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” to “It will cause a lot more [trouble; pain; shame; heartbreak; etc.] to [lose; fail; underperform; declare bankruptcy; etc.]” and “the potential rewards far outweigh the risk of getting caught.”
We all rationalize our actions and decisions, whether we cheat or not. And we do it every day. Here’s one of my favorite exchanges from the brilliant movie The Big Chill:
Michael Gold (Jeff Goldblum): I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.
Sam Weber (Tom Berenger): Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Michael Gold: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?
So we all lie. We all cheat. And we all rationalize these sins.
But what troubles me, and I am sure most of you out there, is the indisputable fact that cheaters DO prosper…all the time. And insodoing, cheaters rob others who play by the rules of everything from better grades (when curves are affected) to promotions at work (or getting a job at all), from winning a meaningless game or sporting event to making the roster of a professional team, from winning an election at any level to winning a Pulitzer prize, etc. Cheaters rob us of heroes and role models, of dignity, of motivation and in some cases, of everything we believe and believe in.
In other words, both proverbs quoted above seem to be flat wrong.
Ever since Jacob and Rebecca cheated Esau out of his blessing and birthright (and probably even before that), people have deceived and manipulated others for their own gain.
The most incredible part of this admittedly (and unfortunately) unsurprising fact are the depths people will sink to and the random and seemingly insignificant events and mundane activities in which regular Joes (and Josephines) have felt compelled to cheat. Consider the following, just for a taste (I wish I was making some of these up):
1) Recently, in an annual Scrabble Tournament held in Orlando that I assume a very small percentage of the population even know about, a player was caught hiding blank letter tiles (click here).
2) Pretty much ever since the invention of TNT, people have used the explosive to aid them in…wait for it…FISHING! Yup, it’s not enough to bring a rod, hook, bait and net to the ol’ fishin’ hole anymore…too difficult and time consuming (and boring, I guess). So let’s blow up the whole lake. Dead and dying fish will float up to the top, and these menaces to all that is sacred just scoop the floaters into their boat and fry up their bounty for supper (see also: deer and bird hunting with machine guns).
3) Difficult to even type this one: People cheat on paternity tests. And what’s worse, there are articles and websites that describe why and how people do it, like this one.
4) People cheat when playing video games, often times even skirting fair play in games they play alone. This is not a new phenomenon…it has been going on since the days of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out and Super Mario Brothers. But this article still brings this odd behavior to light.
5) People cheat in animal show competitions, as seen here. (Yes, you read that right).
6) A calamity we are all aware of, but still must be reiterated for its sheer SMH power: People cheat the welfare system (and various other government agencies), like this example.
7) And this list of jaw-dropping attempts at cheating from the world of sport…some of which even “worked.”
There are countless other examples. Cheating is ubiquitous, and we are all immersed into our society of cheaters at a very young age.
As our innocence disappears, and the veil is lifted from our childhood naiveté, we notice that despite everything our parents told us (if we were even fortunate enough to have caring, loving parents in the first place who imparted such nuggets of wisdom upon us), people cheat, and what’s worse, people benefit from cheating.
We learn it in school, when we see people looking at their classmates’ test papers and “stealing” their answers. We learn it at recess and at home playing games like hide and seek, when we notice the person deemed “it” to peek through their spread fingers and watch where the hiders seek cover. And we certainly learn it on television and in movies, where characters such as Bart Simpson regularly cheat and lie. Even on the occasions where such characters are caught, the punishments levied are generally more comical than fear-inducing. Furthermore, the never aging Peter Pan blessing creators of shows like the Simpsons bestow upon their characters allow the writers to continue to rehash these questionable behavior choices over and over again with impunity.
(Please read this article regarding the cheating epidemic facing private schools)
Children watching and emulating these flawed characters undoubtedly believe such behavior choices are anywhere from virtually inconsequential to at worst, “don’t have a cow, dude,” on the grander spectrum of “I should definitely try that” to “there is no way I am risking that.”
And what’s worse, parents often put so much pressure on their children that cheating becomes, at least in the child’s eyes, the only option…or at least the best option. Far too often, parents foster the cheating mentality themselves by doing the work for their children and allowing the kids to take credit for it.
Our other role models and heroes (besides our parents) cheat too, and their morally ambiguous (read: reprehensible) behaviors are widely publicized throughout the media. Worse still, more often than not (sorry Milli Vanilli), even when caught, the ramifications for cheating sports figures, business leaders, politicians, rock and pop stars and other celebrities seem to be no more than a perfunctory slap on the wrist accompanied by a brief public relations nightmare (which is almost always expertly handled by highly professional teams of PR reps).
It is not surprising, in a world where cheating is so commonplace, that companies have also adopted the practice. After all, companies are people too…er…I mean, they are comprised of and run by people. Yup, we are swindled, misled and generally duped every day by Corporate Planet Earth (not just America, to be fair), with practices such as side-stepping environmental regulations; false advertising; and, out-and-out lies regarding weights and measures found inside product packaging as well as benefits and possible side affects of certain products.
Of course this has been going on for years. But the audacity of corporations coupled with the regulatory bodies’ inability to counter with any kind of credible and lasting counter-policies never ceases to amaze. A clear trend has emerged: Regulatory agencies in any sphere will never be able to fully control their respective sectors and prevent cheating because they are and always will be vastly under-funded AND those who cheat will always remain a step ahead of those trying to prevent cheating.
Why? You may be tempted to ask. Well it’s quite simple, really. The answer, as always, comes down to MONEY. And there is a great deal of it in the cheating game, in case you haven’t noticed.
So why do elementary school children cheat when playing games like Hide and Seek? No money changes hands there, you may argue. Well the truth is, nobody wants to be IT on the playground just like nobody wants to be POOR in life. Everything is relative. Young people are not ruled by monetary paradigms, so they trade (and therefore cheat) on the currency that rules their lives – self esteem. Kids believe that “winning” games, or at least demonstrating more athletic and strategic prowess on the playground than their peers, makes them cooler and more likeable. And being popular is really what any child wants. Further, kids begin to cheat in the classroom at a young age to impress and win the favor (and love) of their parents. Again, this behavior is motivated by self-esteem reasons.
And adults continue these behaviors they first learned during their youth. The only difference is adults realize their world is governed by money, and so financial motivations dominate their behaviors. It should not be a surprise though, that in our world, money (and its corresponding increase in perceived social status) buys people…wait for it…SELF ESTEEM (yup, all of us adults are just larger kids on that playground). At least people believe money can buy self-esteem.
So back to our opening joke, the Rabbi, the stolen bike and the adulterer. If simply being reminded of moral codes has a significant effect on how we view our own behavior, witnessing the likes of Lance StrongArm humiliated on Oprah (like James Frey and countless others before him), Barry Bonds (and his peers) voted out of the Hall of Fame (at least for now), Carlos Mencia blackballed by the entire comedy industry, and Beyoncé’s image taking a hit for pre-recording our national anthem at BO’s inauguration certainly registers with the rest of us for a number of reasons.
Since we all cheat, these very public shamings make us all take a closer look at ourselves, even subconsciously, for a brief moment and acknowledge our own transgressions with rules and laws…we all recognize the behavior and our own proclivities to bend the rules…and none of us like this recognition. Perhaps that is why we get so angry when others cheat…and particularly when others benefit from said cheating.
And so we then rationalize our own behavior IN COMPARISON to our fallen heroes and celebrity scapegoats. Seeing them writhe in the nets of public opinion, losing respect, honor, glory, money and in some cases, everything, makes us feel superior to these once-respected (even worshipped) personalities, if even for a moment, as we all think to ourselves that we “would never have cheated if we were in that same position” in our best “holier than thou” internal voices.
But would we have? Can we be so sure?
What are your thoughts?
Thanks for reading,