Cheaters of the world, rejoice. Science has found a new scapegoat for you to blame your lack of a moral compass on. Turns out that cheating, and other unethical behaviors, could be a product of hormonal reactions, according to a new study.

Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Texas, Austin, decided to explore unethical behavior in greater depth in order to uncover what role our hormones play in our decisions to do what we know is wrong. They were interested to discover what exactly motivates us to cheat, as cheating scandals become a growing issue on college campuses and financial fraud amounts to $3.7 trillion in annual costs for businesses. Specifically looking at two hormones — the reproductive hormone testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol — researchers found they played a two-part role in encouraging and enforcing cheating.

The study found that this dual role the hormones play is key to committing an unethical act. First, hormone levels will increase, predicting the likelihood of cheating, and then these hormone levels will change to reinforce the behavior. “Although the science of hormones and behavior dates back to the early 19th century, only recently has research revealed just how powerful and pervasive the influence of the endocrine system is on human behavior,” said Robert Josephs, UT Austin professor of psychology, in a press release.

In order to test how hormones can influence cheating, the researchers asked 117 participants to complete a math test. Then, once they were finished, they were asked to grade the test themselves and report how many problems they got correct. They motivated participants to cheat even more by telling them that the more problems they got correct, the more money they would earn.

The researchers then collected salivary samples from participants after they took the test, finding that those who had higher levels of testosterone and cortisol were more likely to lie about how many problems they got correct. “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,” Josephs said. “Testosterone furnishes this courage to cheat, and elevated cortisol provides a reason to cheat.”

Interestingly enough, those who cheated also reported feeling a reduction in stress after the test, accompanied by a lower level of cortisol in their system. It’s as if cheating had given these participants a feeling of relief.

“The stress reduction is accompanied by a powerful stimulation of the reward centers in the brain, so these physiological psychological changes have the unfortunate consequence of reinforcing the unethical behavior,” Josephs said.

Now that the researchers better understand what mechanisms are motivating the unethical behavior, they hope to explore how to eliminate this hormonal response and its subsequent reinforcement. Because they did not observe a similar response when these hormones acted independently of one another, they believe that lowering levels of both testosterone and cortisol could potentially prevent cheating.

Researchers have also observed in previous studies that when a group is rewarded for good behavior, as opposed to an individual, the effects of testosterone could be eliminated. As far as the stress hormone cortisol goes, Josephs says he’s seen people relieve distress through certain techniques, like yoga and meditation.

“The take-home message from our studies is that appeals based on ethics and morality (the carrot approach) and those based on threats of punishment (the stick approach) may not be effective in preventing cheating,” Josephs said. “By understanding the underlying causal mechanism of cheating, we might be able to design interventions that are both novel and effective.”

Source: Josephs R, et al. Hormones and ethics: Understanding the biological basis of unethical conduct. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2015.