Cheating—Shaped by Environment or Innate Behavior?

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A recent study examined the question of whether cheating was influenced by scarcity and/or abundance. It also delved into the question of in-group versus outside group factors (an “us versus them” scenario). The study was conducted by Dr. Marco Palma, director of the Human Behavior Lab at Texas A&M University and professor in the department of agricultural economics, and Dr. Billur Aksoy, assistant professor of economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

Let the Games Begin

The researchers devised an incentive-based game in order to “. . . study the extent to which scarcity in the form of a substantial reduction in available resources impacts cheating behavior.”1 The game (called either the cheating or trust game in the study) was conducted in Guatemala among 141 coffee bean farmers during the scarcity period and 109 farmers during the abundance period. The first set of games was before harvest when money is scarce; the second was during harvest when money is much more abundant. Finally, a third game called a dictator game was played in two phases, also during scarcity and abundance times (more on this later).

The cheating/trust game for both the scarcity and abundance periods consisted of the player having to roll a 6-sided dice twice, but only reporting the first roll. The dice was actually “rolled” by shaking an opaque cup with a lid and then opening the lid and viewing the result. In this way, only the participant (and not the researchers) knew the outcome. During the first cheating game, the person was playing only for their own benefit, and payoffs were determined by the number reported. Payoff amounts were in Guatemalan Quetzals (Q 10 is equivalent to USD 1.40). Rolling a 1 paid Q 5, a 2 paid Q 10, a 3 paid Q 15, a 4 paid Q 20, a 5 paid Q 25, and a 6 paid nothing. Then, they played the same game for an anonymous person from the subject’s own village (the in-group). Finally, they played the same game for an anonymous person from outside of their village (the out-group).2

The Somewhat Surprising Results

Very little overall difference was seen between scarcity and abundance periods, although abundance seemed to favor a slightly higher rate of cheating for self.

Statistically, with a roll of 6 equaling zero, the average number reported should be equal to the theoretical average of 2.5 [(1+2+3+4+5+0)/6]. If the subjects were honest and reported the observed outcome, then on expectation, the high payoffs should occur half of the time. Thus, reporting high payoffs more often than 50% represents evidence of cheating on average in order to increase earnings. During the scarcity period, cheating-for-self results were 73.14% reporting a 4 or 5, 22.2% reporting a 2 or 3 and only 4.63 reporting a 1 and 6 (with 6 being equal to zero will hereafter be referred to as 0). To break it down to 3 or higher rolls, which is above the expected 2.5 statistical average, 86.1% reported rolls of 3, 4 or 5. During the abundance period, results were similar, 80.73% reported 4 or 5 rolls, 13.77% reported a 2 or 3 roll, and 5.5% reported rolls of 0–1. Again, for rolls of 3–5, the reported numbers were 88.99% well above the statistical average. Very little overall difference was seen between scarcity and abundance periods, although abundance seemed to favor a slightly higher rate of cheating for self. But somewhat surprising was that scarcity did not generate more cheating for financial gain than abundance. In fact, the numbers reported for scarcity were almost 7 percentage points lower than abundance for rolls of 4–5.3

The in-group and out-group numbers also showed an expected trend but still had a few surprises. During scarcity for the in-group game, 75% reported a 3–5 roll and 25% a 0–2 roll. But for the out-group, only 68.51% reported a 3-5 whereas 31.49% reported a 0-2 roll. This followed the expected pattern of people wanting to favor their own group during lean times. During abundance, however, the in-group and out-group results were somewhat surprising. The in-group reported 73.83% for rolls of 3–5 and 26.17% for rolls of 0–2. The out-group reported 53.21% for 3–5 rolls and 46.79% for rolls of 0–2. These “abundance out-group” numbers are much closer to what would be expected of the statistical average. This means that villagers were more than willing to cheat for their own or their own group’s benefit. But they suddenly developed an acute case of honesty when payment was made to (what was perceived to be) outsiders. This also shows that villagers when faced with giving payments to outsiders, were more willing to cheat for them in scarcity than in abundance 68.51% (scarcity) for rolls of 3–5 versus 53.21% (abundance).4

The Dictator Game

The last game played was the dictator game. Unlike the cheating games, it focused on how scarcity affected giving to others in an in-group, an out-group, and on how much they kept for themselves. In this game, there are two players: a dictator and a recipient. The dictator is given a Q 30 endowment (about USD 4.20), and he is asked to decide how much money (if any) to send to the recipient.5 The recipient has nothing to contribute to the scenario. As in the previous games, there is an in-group, an out-group, and a “self” category. After the dictator makes a decision of how much to give (Q 0–Q 30), he keeps whatever isn’t given away.

In times of abundance, the dictators on average kept Q 13.02 for themselves and sent an average of Q 10.13 to the in-group, which is significantly higher than the amount they sent to the out-group (Q 6.85). This outcome was mostly in line with expectations. But in times of scarcity, the dictators kept a much lower average of only Q 10.12, gave an average of Q 10.52 to the in-group and Q 9.36 to the out-group. This out-group finding was also a little surprising as the statistical difference between what was given to the in-group and to the out-group was minor. Furthermore, the dictators seemed willing to lessen their share of the overall total to help the out-group.

Implications of the Study

The study showed that it was not poverty which was primarily responsible for the results. Rather, it was greed and an innate propensity to lie and cheat.

So, what are the nuts and bolts of this study, and why is it something a creation apologetics organization would report on? Quite simply, it goes hand in hand with what Scripture says. From the numbers reported in the games versus what the statistical probability of those numbers would be, it is quite obvious that cheating for oneself or for one’s neighbors, family, and friends was rampant in this study. With 5 being the highest number, it was reported as the rolled number in the “self” portion in either scarcity or abundance at over a staggering 53% for the cheating game. Keeping in mind that when rolling a six-sided dice, you should get each number 16.67% of the time on average. Since these numbers stayed almost exactly the same in abundance and scarcity, the study showed that it was not poverty which was primarily responsible for the results. Rather, it was greed and an innate propensity to lie and cheat.

In an interview with reporter Laura Muntean of Texas A & M University, coauthor of the study, Dr. Marco Palma stated:

If you look at the high paying numbers [3, 4 and 5], there are three numbers out of six. So, 50% of the time they should report a high payoff and 50% of the time a low payoff. We find that they reported about 90% of high numbers during scarcity and about 90% in abundance. So, there was no change in cheating across the two periods. This tells us there is no real change for the propensity to cheat during scarcity and abundance. Meaning, this is more like an inner characteristic of an individual.6

Telling Results

Sin is innate, just as this study shows.

What the study shows is that in situations where (1) there seem to be no disincentives for cheating; (2) the cheating is not done directly against another individual; and (3) the cheater feels that he/she cannot be caught, then cheating for self is rampant and only controlled a little by not wanting to make it completely obvious. In biblical terms, this false reporting in order to acquire monetary gain shows an innate sin nature and a propensity to sin. Just as Romans 3:23 and 5:12 tells us, sin came into the world when Adam fell, and everyone since (except Jesus Christ) has sinned and falls short of the glory of God. Sin is innate, just as this study shows.

But interestingly when it came to giving away money to an out-group, the die results were reported much closer to statistical averages, especially in times of abundance. Although in times of scarcity, people softened a little and cheated a bit more for the outsiders. The same monetary pattern (minus any cheating) held true in the dictator game, “self” was given the largest share in times of abundance, followed by insider than outsiders. But in times of scarcity, dictators were more willing to spread the wealth, first to insiders, then self (though still disproportionately since “self” is not a group but an individual), then to outsiders. Even in the best scenarios, the outsiders always came in the last place. Now certainly we are not advocating cheating to help anyone, as it would be dishonest (and abusing the wealth of the benefactor in some of these cases). But in the case of the dictator game, it was merely testing benevolence to outsiders. Is this neglectful pattern also mentioned in Scripture? Absolutely it is! Remember how often God (directly or through the prophets) had to “remind” Israel not to treat the stranger peaceably living in the land as a second-class citizen? Consider passages like Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19 and Psalm 146:9. Even in the N.T. Jesus had to remind a lawyer who was questioning him that an outsider could and should be treated as a neighbor (Luke 10:30–37). Hebrews 13:2 and 3 John 1:5 also remind us not to ignore the needs of strangers (outsiders).

In almost every “game” in this study, we see the exaltation of self at the expense of others.

In almost every “game” in this study, we see the exaltation of self at the expense of others. The only thing close to an exception was the dictator game’s “scarcity” scenario where there was overall more given to others than to self (though still disproportionately). But even here we have to look at the findings with a grain of salt. The dictators were given the money to distribute, and as such, might have considered it all “house money.” And in this game, the researchers had to know the results in order to distribute the monies. Therefore, there might have been some guilt associated with keeping a majority for self, especially in times of scarcity.

The Researchers’ Discussion of Their Results

Drs. Aksoy and Palma summed up their findings as follows:

We find that scarcity does not affect subjects’ cheating behavior for themselves. . . . [T]he data presented in this paper suggests that cheating in an effort to increase the subjects’ own well-being is not impacted by the economic environment. Our findings provide suggestive evidence that cheating may be rooted in individual traits. In this regard, recent literature seems to align with our findings, suggesting a potential genetic predisposition to antisocial behavior and crime.7

Even in an experiment like ours, where there is no risk of being caught and punished, subjects do not cheat for others as much as they do for themselves. There are two potential explanations. First, people may be envious and prefer to earn more than others, which could also result in anti-social cheating. . . . Second, in line with lying aversion research, there may be non-monetary costs associated with cheating behavior.8

The Biblical Discussion of Their Results

The researchers have it right: the Bible declares that we are innately selfish, prone to lying and theft (and a host of other sins). Rather than shifting the blame to economic circumstances, the Bible (as this study found) declares that we are all sinners by choice.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NKJV).
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 14:12).
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matthew 15:19).

But the Bible does not only speak about the innate condition of all men, it also warns Christians and on the positive side, how we are to treat our neighbor and even “outsiders.”

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another (Ephesians 4:25).
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:28–29).
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (Colossians 4:5–6).
and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).

It is refreshing to see that, when observational science is carried out, it corroborates what Scripture has said all along. True science, when not impregnated with evolutionary assumptions, always agrees with the Bible.


  1. Billur Aksoy and Marco A. Palma, “The effects of scarcity on cheating and in-group favoritism,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, (July 11, 2019): 1.
  2. Ibid., 5 [Although in reality the out-group “payee” was also from the same village, but participants were told payment would go to another village’s member].
  3. Ibid., 4–5.
  4. Ibid., 6–7.
  5. Ibid., 5 and 9–10.
  6. Laura Muntean, “Cheater, cheater: Human Behavior Lab studies cheating as innate trait,” website, last modified August 2, 2019,
  7. Aksoy and Palma, “The effects of scarcity on cheating and in-group favoritism,” 11.
  8. Ibid.


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