Your haywire hormones may be the reason you cut corners just to get on the spin class leaderboard
Nobody wants to be a cheater. Whether it’s Googling proper spelling in the middle of a Words With Friends game, writing off a little more on your income taxes, or “miscounting” how many burpees you have left, we’re typically not proud of transgressions—big or small. Then why do we do it? Turns out, unethical behavior is due in large part to a hormonal reaction.
Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Texas, Austin were interested in learning what exactly motivates us to cheat, so they gave people a math test. The study participants were told the more answers they got right, the more money they would earn—and then they were asked to grade the papers themselves. After researchers took salivary samples, they found two specific hormones—testosterone and cortisol—were responsible for encouraging and enforcing cheating. (As for romantic cheating, well, that can't be boiled down to just two hormones. Check out our Infidelity Survey: What Cheating Looks Like.)
Higher levels of testosterone decreased the fear of punishment and increased sensitivity to the reward, while the increased cortisol made for such an uncomfortable state of chronic stress that people had a serious urge to finish up already. All of this is to say, you're more likely to cheat when you're under a lot of stress or seriously enticed by the reward.
And, interestingly, this hormonal shift can be directly applied to what drives your most blush-worthy gym habits—cheating on your workout. This is never more true than when you’re in a group class or competing against a friend. When first place is at stake—whether that’s placing on the class leaderboard or just loser-buys-dinner perks—the dangerous combination of testosterone and cortisol may cause you to cut corners. (Are You Too Competitive at the Gym?)
While this isn’t exactly what the study looked at, the mechanism supports it. “Our results show that people who have the combination of high testosterone and high cortisol tend to cheat more, so my intuition is that the same people are more likely to cheat in a group setting where there is social comparison, competition, and performance pressure to win,” explains study author Jooa Julia Lee, Ph.D. The social comparison aspect would especially get to the high testosterone folks, who are more reward-/risk-seeking and status-driven, while the pressure to win would increase stress and therefore cortisol levels, activating that desire to get to the finish line first no matter what, Lee explains.
Lee's team hasn't tested whether you can subvert the drive to cheat, but she thinks certain stress-reducing techniques, like meditation which involves being aware of one's own emotional states, might help. Plus, previous studies have shown that when a group is rewarded for good behavior instead of just the individual, the effects of testosterone are eliminated, the study also notes. And working out naturally lowers cortisol (as long as you don’t view your workout as a stressful, highly competitive situation). So if you want to kick your corner cutting habits at the gym, stick to classes where the whole group is praised for their hard work, not the single strongest performer. After all, having a workout buddy can be one of the best motivators, and healthy competition can be, well, healthy. But no one is going to want to race if you’re a cheater, cheater pumpkin eater.