Hormones may be partners in crime for unethical behavior

A new study claims that naughty behavior like fraud, cheating and lying could be predicted and reinforced by a rise in hormones such as testosterone and cortisol.

Danny Gallagher
CNET freelancer Danny Gallagher has contributed to Cracked.com, Mental Floss, Maxim, Break.com, Mandatory, Jackbox Games, Geeks Who Drink and many, many other publications in his never-ending quest to bring the world's productivity to a screeching halt. He lives and works in Dallas. Email Danny.
Danny Gallagher
3 min read

Getty Images/Glowimages

Everyone who had to face a difficult test in school also had to fight off a little voice in their head that tried to convince them that cheating was the safest option. A new study suggests this devilish voice may not have come from your brain. It may have come from your endocrine system.

A joint study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University suggests that certain hormones such as testosterone and cortisol could play a major role in -- and be a predictor for -- a person committing unethical behavior such as lying, cheating or stealing, according to UT-Austin.

The study, entitled "Hormones and ethics: Understanding the biological basis of unethical conduct," will be published in the August edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Researchers conducted an experiment in which 117 participants were asked to take a math test that would reward them with money for each correct answer. Here's the twist: the participants were also asked to grade their own papers and report the number of correct answers to the test administrators. (Where was this program when I was struggling with 12th grade trigonometry?)

The researchers took saliva samples from the potential cheats before they took the test, in order to measure the level of the reproductive hormone testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol in their systems. They found that the participants who had high levels of both hormones were most likely to lie about their total number of correct answers in order to get more money. The participants who cheated also reported feeling less stressed than those who didn't and had lower levels of cortisol following the test than before it, according to the statement.

Robert Josephs, a professor of psychology at UT-Austin, said in a statement that these hormones can guide a person to commit an unethical act by regulating the emotions that might deter them from committing it.

"Elevated testosterone decreases the fear of punishment while increasing sensitivity to reward. Elevated cortisol is linked to an uncomfortable state of chronic stress that can be extremely debilitating," said Josephs. "Testosterone furnishes the courage to cheat, and elevated cortisol provides a reason to cheat."

Knowing the underlying chemistry that creates the perfect environment for a person to do something unethical could lead to treatments that can keep people's hormones in check and thereby deny them the gumption to commit such acts, said Josephs. "By understanding the underlying causal mechanism of cheating, we might be able to design interventions that are both novel and effective."

Reducing stress that in turn reduces the level of cortisol could make a noticeable difference and could also have a positive impact on a person's health. Endurance athlete and author Christopher Bergland, writing in Psychology Today, calls cortisol "Public Enemy No. 1" when it comes to health: increased levels of the hormone can lead to higher risks of depression, other mental health issues, high blood pressure, heart disease and many other ailments. Bergland makes several suggestions for keeping your cortisol at a healthy level, such as starting an exercise routine, setting aside 10 to 15 minutes a day to practice mindfulness or quiet meditation and being more socially connected and less isolated.

So should students be encouraged to meditate ahead of an important exam? Return to consciousness and pick up your pens, please...