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Why cricketers cheat (and you might too)

29th Mar 2018

UPDATE AUGUST 2021: Since this blog was published serious questions have been raised regarding the authenticity of the data used in the experiment cited in relation to ‘honesty declarations.’ We have left the text as originally written in 2018 but reader discretion is advised.

With offices in Sydney and London, and a good mix of Australian and English employees in each, we’ve been following the Australian ball tampering scandal with interest and sympathy (full disclosure: some of us find it easier to summon sympathy than others).

As the fallout engulfs the most successful team in the history of the world’s second most popular sport, people are asking questions. How did this happen? What happens next? And, in the United States, what exactly is cricket?

A lot of people cheat, a little bit

Behavioural science has a lot to say about why people lie and cheat. Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, tries to understand what exactly goes on when we fail to accurately follow our moral compass or, in this case, try to illegally sandpaper a cricket ball in front of a global television audience.

In one lab experiment, Mazar, Amir and Ariely gave participants five minutes to complete as many maths problems as they could, getting paid 50c for each correct answer. When people were asked to recycle their score sheet and self-report their scores – giving them the opportunity to cheat – they mysteriously got a lot better at maths compared to those with no opportunity to lie. Ariely also shows that there aren’t just a few people who massively increase their number of correct problems. Instead, a lot of people cheat only a little bit, increasing their score by just a few points. In another lab experiment, Gino, Ayal and Ariely find cheating is influenced by groupthink. We are more likely to cheat if we see others in our group (or cricket team) doing so, but less likely if we see other groups cheating (South Africa may be safe from scandal for now).

Ariely calls our invisible cap on cheating the personal fudge factor: a mechanism through which we can allow ourselves access to the benefits that come from cheating, without significantly altering our idealised impression of our honest selves. In Smith, Warner, and Bancroft’s case, the scrutiny of their actions is not by an academic in a lab but in front of the world’s media. This makes it easy for us to impose a harsh judgment. However, reflection on our own lives might also reveal a number of, albeit more private, instances of straying from the truth.

Still, cheating can be reduced

Cheating is no small matter – once trust is damaged, it’s difficult to get back, and there is always a risk that a few particularly bad apples spoil the bunch. What can we do?

First, one solution might be to introduce honesty declarations at the start of games – much in the way that witnesses in court have to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Research by Lisa Shu, a professor at London Business School, and co-authors finds that getting people to sign a declaration before they had the chance to cheat makes them more likely to tell the truth than if they made a similar declaration at the end.

Second, the same tools that are used to encourage other behaviours, like voting, could be used to discourage cheating. Christopher Bryan, at the University of Chicago, gave people the chance to cheat and get paid more for a task than they deserved. He found that when people were asked ‘please don’t be a cheater,’ they were significantly less likely to cheat than when they were asked ‘please don’t cheat.’ By making cheating a threat to identity, he made it hard to do.

Finally, sunlight, as Louis Brandeis said, remains the best disinfectant. Perhaps cricketers, like bankers, need greater scrutiny of their on-field discussions. A cricketer may be less likely to sledge a member of his opposing team or, perhaps, cheat, if they knew the chat was recorded and available for review and release by the governing body. The risk of compromising a public identity of honesty and integrity would increase – likely to a level to prevent misbehaviour.  

And what about for us backyard cricketers and enthusiasts? In the end, as in so many aspects of life, we need to rely on most people not cheating – at least in a major way – to reinforce the social norm of fair play.

Oh, and for our perplexed American readers, it’s like baseball, only more entertaining (but, it seems, the same presence of ball tampering).