Popular belief may say that cheaters feel guilty about their actions after they commit the deed, but according to a new study, those who cheat are more likely to get a natural high after getting away with it — as long as no one gets hurt.

“When people do something wrong specifically to harm someone else, such as apply n electrical shock, the consistent reaction in previous research has been that they feel bad about their behavior,” lead author of the study, Nicole E. Ruedy, of the University of Washington, said in a statement. “Our study reveals people actually may experience a ‘cheater’s high’ after doing something unethical that doesn’t directly harm someone else.”  

Ruedy and her team of researchers discovered this natural high after performing a number of experiments, which involved more than 1,000 people in their 20s and 30s from the U.S. and England. About 400 people were from the general public and the rest were college students.

In the first experiment, participants were asked to take math and logic tests on a computer. One group of participants moved from one question to the next automatically, while the second group was given the option to see the answer before they had to choose, however, they were discouraged from doing so. The researchers found that 68 percent of those who had the option to see the answer looked at it — they considered this as cheating. These participants were also more likely to be happier after the experiment too.  

The second experiment involved participants who were asked to complete math tests within a time limit if they wanted to get paid. Their grades would be determined by another “participant” who was actually an actor. The actor graded some tests accurately, while for others, the actor told participants that they had reported a higher grade. Researchers found that participants who gained from another person’s lies felt better about themselves. These participants also made no mention of the actor’s lies to experimenters.

In the third experiment, perhaps the most indicative of a cheater’s natural high, participants were given anagrams to unscramble in consecutive order. The third anagram was “unaagt,” which unscrambles to the word taguan, a species of flying squirrel. Previous tests had shown that the word is extremely difficult word to unscramble and researchers determined that anyone who got past the word had cheated. They found that more than half of the participants cheated, and that their level of satisfaction was higher than those who didn’t cheat. Researchers also found that those who were reminded of the implications of cheating — that results would be unreliable — felt even higher levels of satisfaction.

“The good feeling some people get when they cheat may be one reason people are unethical even when the payoff is small,” Ruedy said in the statement. “It’s important that we understand how our moral behavior influences our emotions.”

Source: Ruedy N, Moore C, Gino F, et al. The Cheater's High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior. SSRN Electronic Journal. 2013.