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I was heady with happiness. Since I hadn’t yet had my first taste of alcohol, I couldn’t compare the feeling to a champagne high, but it was the most delightful sensation I’d ever experienced. —Frank Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can
Is there an emotional high that people experience when they get away with doing something underhanded? In his book, Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale described how successfully pulling off one of his numerous confidence schemes left him “heady with happiness” and even more determined to repeat the experience. It is tempting to dismiss Abagnale and others like him reporting such a high as being substantially different from law-abiding people with a well-developed moral sense, is that necessarily the case?
Though models of ethical decision-making argue that negative emotions such as guilt, shame, and fear of detection help discourage most people from acting unethically, whether by cheating, stealing, or other moral lapses, research testing this assumption have usually focused on why people obey orders that cause harm to someone else (i..e., the Milgram obedience studies) which appear to provoke strong emotion.
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But what about relatively victimless crimes such as computer piracy, tax evasion, insurance fraud, or cheating on tests? Does guilt or shame actually deter people from doing these things? While no offense is truly victim-free since society as a whole is damaged to some extent by these activities, that distinction is often too subtle for many people to take seriously. According to available statistics on the real prevalence of consumer crime, the economic consequence of these crimes is astronomical with billions of dollars lost each year to bogus insurance claim, false tax statements, and employee theft.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today post.
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