When is it cheating?

I've had two requests to define what I mean by "cheating". I define it differently than disciplinarians and judges who enforce normative rules, laws and standards of conduct. For me, cheating is not something someone else can judge for you or label your conduct fairly. It's your call. It's you who has to live with the repercussions of your conduct. No one can be the judge of those consequences other than yourself. If you can live with the choice over the long term, it's not cheating. However, the short term success is a poor predictor of what will come back around to haunt you, extract penalties from you over time or make the choice appear short sighted in the long run.

Thus in my view, cheating is a perception, personal experience or intrinsic quality of some of our actions. What other people do with their experience of our conduct is their responsibility. The way I use the term, cheating does not exist in our tangible, objective, consensus reality. It's entirely subjective and idiosyncratic when it occurs. However, the patterns of those occurrences are highly familiar and shared among us.

Those cognitive patterns (which I'll explore tomorrow) structure our conduct to be:
  • self policing: we catch ourselves before we pay in the long run, cheat ourselves or kid ourselves about the ultimate consequences
  • self-regulating: we limit how deviant and disruptive we can be before we cross the line of attracting suspicions, censure or confrontations
  • self-enhancing: we look after our best interests and long term benefits which are also good for the community over the long term
  • self-replicating: we do what works again with less uncertainty or hesitation which frees us to be more considerate and responsive to others
Two examples may help us here:
  1. A spouse gets mislabeled as cheating on his/her marriage. The context that supports a story of "infidelity, betrayal and selfishness" is widely shared. The idiosyncratic experience is invisible to those who are not confidants of the "cheater". The departure from monogamy may play out as a return to the marriage that renews the vows, a disruption of interaction patterns in the relationship, or a departure to explore relationships with more rapport, companionship and reciprocation. It comes down to living with the effect on the marriage, the spouse and oneself over the long term.
  2. Someone in a position of authority is accused of getting bribed when either making a political appointment, selecting an individual for a promotion, filling a vacant position or awarding a contract to a bidder. It appears that unfair advantage was taken by the party brokering a side deal to influence the main deal. Yet the obvious manipulations may obscure a win/win reciprocation. When the strings attached to the deal are not one-sided, both parties have made a long term commitment. Both are hampered by, obligated to and responsible for future impacts on the relationship. Stability has been created amidst the flux of changing allegiances, narratives and agendas. Living with the side deal is likely to be easy for both if the benefits of the collaboration benefit others over the long haul in ways their accusers did not anticipate.
To approach others who appear to be cheating, we need to remind ourselves of how little we see. Things are not as they appear. There's more to this evidence than meets the eye. Our objectivity is not the person's subjective experience. The shared, systemic complexity may be using this means toward a good end for all of us. The underlying dynamics of the situation may be provoking a disruption of business as usual, over-complacency and flawed assumptions. The result may be a design for a system that eliminates cheating oneself in favor of cooperation, reciprocation and mutual advancements. We don't know until we ask and observe the cheating with an open mind.


  1. Kia ora Tom

    Thanks for this follow-up.

    There are so many cases in history where 'the rules' have been changed over the ages. Sometimes it's too late to redress the situation. At other times amends are made. One of the embracing examples of these is the crucifixion. I'm not religious. But for me, the crucifixion, and all that's associated with it, is one of the most human things to have ever happened.

    Catchya later

  2. Your welcome Ken. Playing with the crucifixion analogy, it seems much of the old economy that thrived on a wide variety of exploitations is about to get crucified. The rules for making a fair income are getting changed. We're realizing were connected on a global scale like never before and can only cheat ourselves out of a vibrant future.

    Take care

  3. While I'm not sure I agree completely, your description does make the definition of cheating applicable to differences in morals, values, cultures, and expectations. I personally feel there is a social aspect to defining cheating also (your definition appears to be more individual) and there needs to be an understanding of the expectations of others in defining cheating.

  4. Virginia: Thanks for continuing our collaborative exploration of 'cheating". I'm deliberately limiting myself to a context where cheating can be eliminated. That is only possible, in my view, where individuals can come to the realization that they are actually cheating themselves.

    There is another context where cheating will persist and require constant oversight, penalties, rules changes and procedural investigations. In that context, the social aspect you mention comes into play: doing harm to others, violating other's rights, baiting people to indulge in cheating, and cheating others out of what is fair or justly deserved. As you say, the expectations of others is an essential component of controlling others' misconduct.