Is It Ever Fine to Cheat, in Sports or in Life?

A blog about business and economics.
June 19 2014 7:00 AM

When Is It All Right to Cheat?

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An honest bunch— but does that always pay off?

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This story first appeared on Inc.

The odds of the United States winning the World Cup are basically nil, and yet, of course there are plenty of leadership lessons to be learned.

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Still, if you’ve been watching the tournament (and higher ratings in the U.S. suggest you might be), you’re probably already sick of the diving, flopping, and foul baiting. In fact, the New York Times opined Monday that one reason why the United States isn’t among the truly elite teams is that our players don’t add as many theatrical embellishments to their opponents’ fouls (and not-fouls).

“Are the Americans bad at play-acting?” the Times asks, “And if so, should they try to get better?”

That strikes me as one of those sports-as-a-metaphor moments. Forget about whether you can get away with cheating. If you make a rational decision that breaking the rules will pay off more than it costs, should you do so?

What’s the practical cost?

Let’s set aside the moral question for a moment. It’s clear that in soccer as in life, many unsportsmanlike moves offer a bigger potential upside for trying them than the potential downside for getting caught.

Use your hands to block a goal, for example, and you’ll get kicked out of the game and give up a penalty kick to the other team. But, if the alternative is allowing a game-winning score, should you take the risk? (Exactly this situation happened in 2010. It paid off for Uruguay, which advanced over Ghana after a blatant hand ball to save a game-winning goal.)

In their book Freakonomics, co-authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner examined the same question. They used the example of a day care center that wanted to encourage parents to pick up their children on time, and so instituted a $3 charge for coming late. The result? More parents started showing up late.

What’s the moral cost?

Thirteen percent of Americans say it’s OK to cheat on your taxes. When banking giant HSBC was fined $1.9 billion to settle allegations it laundered money for Mexican drug dealers, critics said it was “simply a cost of doing business.”

Yet few of us probably support the idea of either calculation. Even if you can get away with cheating—or even if you logically conclude that the cost of doing so is outweighed by the potential benefit—cheating just strikes most of us as wrong. What's the point of winning if you have to cheat to do so?

The problem is that in the short term, those who make the opposite choice have an advantage. People generally act in their self-interest, so I prefer to make the case that there is a compelling self-interested rationale to making the moral choice. Namely, it’s that truly great leaders recognize that the only game that truly matters is the long run. Thus, although cheating might lead to short-term victory, it almost always carries a longer-term cost.

I don’t expect a lot of comments below supporting the idea of cheating—nobody wants to admit to that—but what do you think? Is the cost-benefit analysis legitimate? And, maybe just as important: Should the Americans learn to take a dive?

Bill Murphy Jr. is a freelance contributor to Inc.

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