You've been there: That moment when you're hunched over a school exam, wracking your brain for an answer you know isn't there. Then comes the crossroad: You could take the loss — or you could peek over at your studious neighbor, whose exam is plainly visible, crib an answer and move on as if nothing happened.
You do it. You get the point and no one's the wiser. You're an evil genius. You feel incredible.
You wouldn't be the first to take the easy point by dubious means. And as NPR recently pointed out, you wouldn't be the first to feel good about it, either. Hell, there are even online communities dedicated to the thrill of the cheat.
When Azeem Khan, a 28-year-old entrepreneur based in New York, was in high school, he went to great lengths to cheat. He'd steal and copy tests, orchestrate bathroom answer pick-ups and get the answers from students who took the test earlier.
In college, he swiped a stack of blue exam booklets, filled them with answers and pretended they were his spillover answer sheets. And when it came time to take the SAT, he knew teachers used a diagonal pattern when handing out tests, meaning the person sitting diagonally from you had the same exam form. So he spent the Math SAT 2 test looking at the person seated kitty-corner from him.
"Every single time there was a crazy adrenaline rush because you know the consequences of getting caught," he said in an interview Tuesday. "But it was exciting, and it meant I didn't have to do as much work to get the same grades."
Unethical behavior may actually result in a positive neural response, a 2013 study found. Even though, initially, study subjects predicted they'd feel guilty after behaving badly, the study showed that people who cheat on problem-solving tasks "consistently experience more positive affect than those who do not," the researchers wrote.
Why cheating feels so good: According to the study, it may be because cheating is associated with self-satisfaction, or deriving joy from doing things for yourself — regardless of how you achieved the result. Immoral as hell, sure — but that's how your brain works.
Within that gray sponge cake in your head, there live a bunch of subcortical neural structures that make you feel good. They release dopamine, regulate emotions and blast your brain with endorphins. When you experience the self-satisfaction associated with cheating, those neural structures light up and release dopamine. That positive dopamine-release sensation creates a connection in your brain: Cheat on test, feel good. And voila — you've got a cheater's high.
"The subcortical part of your brain thinks in terms of 'feed me, fuck me'," Kim Gorgens, an associate professor at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology, said in a phone interview Tuesday.
"When we cheat, from a neurobiological level, it looks the same as drug addiction or cheating [on a spouse]."
Gorgens explained that everything that we find pleasurable is caused by dopamine in the brain. And when you cheat, that's what you get.
"Your frontal cortex is the system of morality, of anticipating consequences," Gorgens said. "It's the subcortical parts, the [pleasure center], that has people behaving impulsively, and cheating, heedless of consequences."
While the crackdown on cheating isn't exactly "War on Drugs" level, there have still been instances of serious consequences for cheating on exams. The more worrisome part is that the pleasure derived from cheating, like the pleasure derived from drugs and exercise, is something your brain can learn to crave. So if you start cheating, it's going to be harder to stop.