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Why Is Everyone Cheating? We’re Watching the Social Contract Break Down in Real Time

As children, we’re all taught a basic code of conduct: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. Don’t hit your sister even if she makes you really, really mad, and try your best to be kind. Lately, it feels like everyone is throwing these lessons out the window and doing whatever the fuck they want.

You may have noticed that the news cycle has been dominated by one cheating scandal after another.

A recent chess investigation found that Hans Moke Neimann, one of chess’s most promising prospects, has “likely cheated” over 100 times in matches over the years, including in his most recent match to former Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen.

Professional poker has erupted in cheating allegations after a puzzling Los Angeles match between seasoned cash game pro Garrett Adelstein and relative newcomer Robbi Jade Lew, who’ve exchanged heated words on social media after Lew allegedly cheated Adelstein out of a $269,000 pot.

And you may have seen those fishing jackasses caught red-handed with lead-weighted fish, which they used to tip the scales a little too much during the Lake Erie Walleye Trail fishing event on Saturday, October 1. A viral video appears to show Chase Cominsky and Jake Runyan, the two cheaters in question, trying to win a tournament using fish with weights and even smaller fish filets hidden inside.

Outside the world of sports, superstar Adam Levine was caught in a sexting scandal, and Ned Fulmer of the Try Guys publicly cheated on his wife.

Unseemly behavior isn’t just occurring in the world of celebrity and high-stakes competition, as unruly passengers on airplines, motor vehicle deaths and violence in schools are also on the rise.

What’s happening to us? Is society melting down around us? Or are incidents of bad human behavior simply more public than ever before?

We decided to collectively take the temperature of our society’s code of conduct. We went to some ethics experts with a simple question, “Why is everyone cheating?


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Liars, Cheaters and Thieves

It doesn’t take a keen eye or even a devoted gossip consumer to notice the sheer number of cheating scandals we’ve encountered in the public eye in just the past few weeks. Celebrities’ personal lives have always been riddled with scandal, but lately, it’s felt like it’s reached a new level of shameless indiscretion.

Loving, Devoted Husbands?

First up you have Adam Levine, caught fucking around and finding out after numerous women came forward, with receipts, to claim inappropriate behavior, including asking a former fling if he can name his unborn child with his wife after her. How many years do you have to spend in the the spotlight not to realize THAT is messed up.

Then we have Ned Fulmer, the besmirched Try Guy whose been ousted from the brand after having an affair with his younger producer. Not only has Ned spent years marketing himself as the “Wife Guy” and building his entire personal brand around being a dedicated husband and father, but he’s made videos with his wife, Ariel Fulmer, who’s become a pseudo-celebrity within the Second Try universe.

Sore Losers Make Lying Winners

Then, we have several distinct yet notably similar instances of cheating across high-stakes competitions within the chess, fishing and poker worlds. Only one of these competitions has resulted in a verified instance of cheating so far, as it’s hard to deny that balls of lead aren’t typical diet for the walleye lurking in the frigid waters of Lake Erie.

However, the writing is on the wall for Neimann and Lew, two competitors who will never be seen the same way in their respective universes, whether or not they actually cheated to win. It’s worth noting that Neimann has admitted to cheating twice in online chess, but has denied any wrongdoing in above-board games for progression within the competitive chess world, although an internal report within the chess world has brought this claim into question.

High Stakes, Highly Disputed Rewards

What do all of these alleged cheaters have in common? Sure, all of the competitors were competing for hefty prizes — Neimann’s match with Carlsen came with a $500,000 prize, Lew and Adelstein were battling for a pot worth nearly $300k, and Lake Erie’s fishing champions would’ve taken home $30,000 in various prizes.

However, they were all, also, up against strict rules, heightened security and some of the highest stakes in terms of repercussions should they get caught, and allegedly had to jump through many hoops to pull off these instances of deceit.

In over-the-board chess and poker, you’re obviously forbidden from receiving outside help, and playing environments are rigorously monitored, leading to elaborate spectator theories involving anal sex toys and vibrating jewelry to explain how Neimann and Lew won their respective games. Cheating is now so common in professional fishing competitions that all winners, and randomized competitors, are subject to polygraph tests administered by former police officers before and after competitions.

Basically, it’s hard to pull off cheating at the level these folks were playing. So you have to REALLY want to cheat in order to do it and win. I’m not claiming they definitely did or didn’t, but regardless of whether these allegations are true or not, our society is at a critical juncture where folks who are already successful are demanding absolute domination of their chosen competition regardless of the methods they need to use to get there.

They’re refusing any other outcome than the one they want, which I believe reflects a larger intolerance for discomfort and disappointment after years where that was all everyone experienced. That, and social isolation. What do you get when you combine a ruthless determination to win and feel happy, and a deep disconnection with your larger human community?

Cheaters, apparently.


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What About Our Brains Makes Us Want to Cheat?

A doctorate-level mental health professional currently seeing clients agreed to speak with SPY on background about the various psychological theories that could explain this rise in competitive cheating.

She had a few different academic theories for why folks cheat ranging from economic motivations and an intense aversion to losing money, to simply wanting to avoid feeling inadequate or like a failure. She also explained how some folks cheat because they don’t believe they’ll successfully achieve a certain outcome otherwise, or they’ve been successful in the past.

She noted that above all, from a clinical perspective it would be about digging into a person’s history and trying to identify what from their past would inform their cheating present. Are they trying to get attention? Is this an attempt at self-sabotage?

Fear of What Losing Would Mean

SPY also spoke with Dr. Edward Ratush, a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in addiction treatment, who noted that, “For some cheaters, there is immense turmoil and fear of what losing means – what it reveals about who they are at their very core. For some, it is such an uncomfortable psychological experience that it becomes a ‘win-at-any-cost’ proposition, even if it requires unethical behavior and/or comes with huge risk.”

“From an evolutionary biology standpoint, most every human is driven to win, to succeed, and (therefore) to survive. It’s the terms by which we are willing to accept defeat that are in question,” said Dr. Ratush.

“Losing graciously can be done when a person’s identity is firm and solid; oftentimes a product of a healthy infancy and early childhood,” said Dr. Ratush.

“Others, however, have identities that are less consistent and more susceptible to the pressures of the environment – often for multifactorial reasons. These individuals may break psychologically when approaching a potential loss. Accordingly, they view winning – in any way necessary – as the only viable option.”

Is It All Just Childhood Trauma?

Maybe. Dr. Ratush noted that “If individuals learn early in life that their worth is dependent on their performance or achievement, or if they need to be “cute” enough or “funny” enough to earn a parent’s love, then they will have a lot more riding on their ability to meet those expectations.”

“In short, the need to control an outcome is more prevalent in people who lived through feelings of lack of control in their lives.”

The Cheater’s High

Our anonymous psychologist also referenced a meta study that found “even though individuals predict they will feel guilty and have increased levels of negative affect after engaging in unethical behavior (Studies 1a and 1b), individuals who cheat on different problem-solving tasks consistently experience more positive affect than those who do not (Studies 2–5).”

There’s a thrill to successfully cheating and getting away with it, and while for some it works out, cheating can also destroy reputations and lives, and it’s the opinion of this journalist that it’s having deadly ripple effects on our society at large.


Games Are Supposed to Be Fun, Remember?

Now, I’m not going to get on a soapbox and preach about how we all have to stop cheating and repair our broken society. I am, rather, going to point out that the collective unraveling of us normal people has everything to do with Neimann’s rumored vibrating butt plug and lead balls being sewn into fish corpses.

The fact that these vastly different niche corners of our society are all experiencing the same type of betrayal and ruthless rule-breaking from some of their highest performers is not just happenstance. Our larger trends of misbehavior are directly reflected in their higher-stakes actions. As we’ve all let ourselves go, so have individuals with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line.

Societies don’t just happen. Civilized orchestration of modern living doesn’t happen without collective effort to uphold key behavioral standards that don’t just enable our planes to leave on time and roads to be safe, but also allow each of us to function emotionally.

Can you imagine if everything was just a free-for-all? How much more exhausting every day as a human would be? These implicit and explicit rules of conduct aren’t just there to keep us safe, they also make everything from chess championships to relationships more enjoyable.

Trust in systems establishes a foundation to feeling secure and is what establishes the base we all need to have fun and enjoy more subtle nuances of the human experience.

So the next time you’re looking to cut a proverbial corner, no matter how small, consider how years of skirting around a boundary could cause that one-rigid edge, and necessary boundary, to start to slip.