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Stress may make you more likely to cheat

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Feeling stressed can make us cranky and rude. But can it also make us less likely to behave honorably?

A new study from Harvard Business School and the University of Texas at Austin suggests that people are more inclined to cheat when they have high levels of the stress hormone cortisol plus the reproductive hormone testosterone.

“Cortisol and testosterone, working together, may influence the propensity to make unethical decisions — a propensity that, up until now, has been thought of as part of one’s ‘personality,’ ” said David Edwards, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Emory University, who was not involved in the work.


In two separate studies, the researchers gave volunteers, mostly Harvard undergraduates, a quiz to complete and then left them alone. Nearly 40 percent of the volunteers cheated — claiming to have answered more questions correctly than they actually did.

Looking at hormones in saliva samples, researchers found that volunteers who had high levels of both testosterone and cortisol — but not either individually — were most likely to cheat.

Both hormones have good effects and bad.

Cortisol is considered a “stress” hormone but is linked to social stress, said Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff, director of the stress-physiology investigative lab at Iowa State University. Cortisol can motivate people to form social bonds, but also make them feel self-conscious, insecure, and anxious.

Testosterone tends to be associated with men, but both genders have it. High levels can lead to aggression and violence and also allow people to ignore distractions and achieve a goal, Shirtcliff said. “That’s a good thing — just not if you overdue it and cheat.”

These hormonal interactions have implications for business and leadership, said Pranjal Mehta, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the study but has collaborated with Robert Josephs, one of the authors from Texas.


“Using the dual hormone approach could really be a breakthrough for understanding how psychological interventions can help and hurt things like decision-making and leadership,” Mehta said.

People with high cortisol and low testosterone might make the best leaders — more likely to make good decisions and less likely to cut ethical corners.

The hormones don’t cause the behavior, Josephs is quick to add. They just increase the chance that people will act a certain way.

So contrary to comedian Flip Wilson’s catchphrase, the devil did not make you do it — and neither did your hormones. The lesson? The next time you’re stressed, watch yourself.