Anxious People Are More Likely to Cheat, Study Finds, So Take a Deep Breath Before You Do Anything You'll Regret

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I might appear super chill and laid-back to my friends (or I might not, I don’t really know), but I’m super anxious, about everything, all the time. So I really hope my boyfriend isn’t reading this article because a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that anxious people are more likely to cheat, if given the chance. Just kidding, the study actually covered the more literal definition of cheating, like cheating at a game of poker, in which case it’s a good thing my regular Monday night poker group disbanded.

Let’s move on from my totally morally upright ethics. Researchers over at Northwestern University conducted six studies, all of which brought them to the conclusion that anxiety, whether it’s induced or measured (which I think means you were already anxious rather than someone setting out to make you anxious), can lead to self-interested unethical behavior. I’m not going to describe each study because a) that would take forever and b) a lot of them sounded really technical and science-y, going into different psychological mechanisms, which I’m not confident I could explain to anyone in a manner that would be at all comprehensible. If you haven’t guessed, science isn’t exactly my forte.

The study, which was summarized in the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, took 63 student participants and made them feel either neutral, calm, or anxious by playing different music. The music they played to make people feel unsettled, which is proof that scientists are awesome people, was the theme from Psycho.

Next, the students participated in some simple computer tasks for money, which had obvious ways to cheat because they relied on truthful self-reports (the honors system) to determine how much money would be made. The non-anxious students made an average of 19 obvious cheats, whereas the anxious students made 24 clear cheats. In other words, the more anxious participants were, the more likely they were to cheat. This is because, as the researchers put it, “anxiety increases threat perception, which in turn, results in self-interested unethical behaviors.” So basically, the more backed into a corner you feel, the more likely you are to look out for #1, even if it means breaking the rules.

So I guess there are two lessons to be learned here. One, don't listen to the Psycho theme at work. Two, if you're feeling threatened and anxious and you're about to do something drastic (say, steal a bunch of money), maybe don't, at least not until you calm down? That's all I've got for you.