In different ways, we all live in a competitive world. But despite the risk of being revealed, it is primarily winners who are prepared to cheat. For example, the world’s largest car maker Volkswagen cheat with the performance of its diesel engines, the world’s best skiers from Norway cheat with their asthma medicine, as well as the now-current movie film about American figure skater and World Cup medalist Tonya Harding. In order to improve her chance to win the Olympic Games in Lillehammer in 1994, her former man broke down the knee of her worst competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. The list goes on.

Why do we take such big risks just to win and retain power? And why do winners continue to cheat even when they have already won? Two scientists, Amos Schurr and Ilana Ritov have conducted a number of experiments published in the reputed American journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) to understand what makes winners to act more unethical than losers.

One of their conclusions is that winners think they have the right to cheat – just because they are winners. As a winner in a competitive environment, they consider them worth better treatment, a winner deserves more than others. Winners compare with other winners and constantly strive for benefits against competitors, even if it involves cheating.

This applies not only to athletes in sports. Even in social contexts, where one can easily compare with others, and success is measured in social status, honest behavior decreases. People with high social status, winners of the social game, tend to increase unsociable or dishonest behavior. Through the so-called Panama- and Paradise Leaks, it was revealed that, above all, the already super-rich and successful people avoid taxes. Prominent business executives, members of royal families, government officials, both son-in-law’s of US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have been exposed to tax evasion.

Through their experiments, the researchers concludes, among other things, that winners easier steal money from their opponents. They think that a competitive-oriented environment seems to attract cheating, while such an environment also reduces a more co-operative behavior between us people. The conclusion is that we try to defeat our opponents in all forms of competitions. Whether it is a contest or our aspiration of high social status, where we are measured against others, it increases the risk of dishonest behavior.

At the same time, dishonest winners are dishonest only to a certain limit. They want to be able to justify their actions to themselves and are dishonest only as long as they can maintain a sense of being honest. Stealing can, for example, be redefined and instead justified by just taking what you rightly deserve after all the effort you put down to achieve success. That many rich hide their money in tax havens can be explained by ”everyone else” is doing it etc.

The scientists mean that we live in an increasingly competitive world. This applies in such different areas as economic and technological development, sport competitions or the quest of material prosperity. But if there is a greater tendency towards more unethical behavior among winners, they worry about the consequences: less social mobility in society and more inequality among us.

The development is likely to be as in the old ABBA song ”The winner takes it all”.

Titel:Winning a competition predicts dishonest behaviour
Author: Amos Schurr och Ilana Ritov, Ben-Gurion University.
Publisher: PNAS 2016. February 16, 2016.

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