According to several new Ben-Gurion University research studies, winning a competition may lead to future dishonest behaviors.


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How do you feel when you win a friendly card game or a round of golf? Elated? A bit cocky? But there’s no harm in that, right? 

However, winning might not be as beneficial as it’s cracked up to be. According to several recent studies by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), people who win a competition are more likely to cheat or act dishonestly in subsequent contests.

In contrast to what most people would assume, it’s not the losers who become cheaters in a desperate attempt to overcome their opponents; it’s the winners who need to strut their stuff.

Dr. Amos Schurr, of BGU’s Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management, found that the winner will do whatever it takes to win again. Overcoming their peers in a competition based on skills fills winners with a sense of entitlement. And from that point on, well, it’s a slippery moral slope.

“The way in which people measure success affects their honesty,” explains Dr. Schurr. “When success is measured by social comparison, dishonesty increases. When success does not involve social comparison, dishonesty decreases.” 

The experiment took the form of a dice game, where one participant threw two dice while the other, unable to see them, waited to hear the outcome. The person who threw the dice was rewarded with as many coins as he or she rolled; the other, meanwhile, was paid the difference between the maximum possible roll of 12 and what their counterpart had reported.

Those who won the first game claimed to have rolled an average of almost 9, while the losers said they rolled an average of closer to 6.5. “If everybody were honest,” says Dr. Schurr, “the average would have been very close to 7. The winners were clearly inflating their scores – and at the expense of their fellow participants!”

In a second experiment, the researchers showed how even just a memory of winning can induce dishonest behavior. Participants who were asked to recall a victory in the dice game wound up inflating their scores.

Dr. Schurr and his team concluded that although competition is vital for advancing economic growth, technological progress, wealth creation, social mobility and greater equality, it is also the cause of unethical behavior, which impedes social mobility and equality and exacerbates disparities in society rather than alleviating them.

So is competition good or bad? The answer is unclear, but it’s safe to say that there’s at least one major advantage to being a loser.