Communication encourages groups to cheat

Being able to communicate while collaborating with others increases our tendency to cheat. This is demonstrated by new remarkable findings from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University.

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As we all know, humans are herd animals that have survived and evolved as a species largely by working together to solve problems. Cooperation that is based on a unique ability to communicate with each other. 

Cooperation and communication are also most often characterised as positive skills. Yes, we even praise these skills and seek them out. Encourage each other, and others, to cooperate. Encourage and value constructive and clear communication. 

But there's also an overlooked flip side to cooperation and communication. Cooperation and communication also increase the likelihood of cheating and deception. In fact, this is even the case when the communication is quite superficial and unrelated to the task at hand.


"We had expected that communication between people would lead to an increased tendency to cheat, but we were somewhat surprised to discover that this also applies even if you’re not allowed to communicate about the task itself," says PhD student Mathilde Tønnesen from the Department of Management, who conducted the study with her department colleagues, Assistant Professor Christian Elbæk, and Professor Panagiotis Mitkidis as well as Professor Stefan Pfattheicher from the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences. All at Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University 

Researchers have long known that collaboration can increase immoral behaviour to profit the group. Among the first to demonstrate this phenomenon were two Israeli behavioural scientists, Ori Weisel and Shaul Shalvi, who in 2015 published a study showing that two people playing a simple dice game cheat more than individuals. 

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"It makes sense that communication supports cheating, because it makes cheating easier. What’s more, you're not the only one cheating, so it may be perceived as less immoral."

Mathilde Tønnesen, ph.d.-student, Department of Management, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus Universitet

Simple dice game 

Mathilde Tønnesen and her colleagues repeated this experiment, but with the twist, in that the ability of pairs to communicate was compared with both individuals and pairs who could not communicate. They also investigated a scenario in which the pairs could communicate, but not about the task itself. In total, 1187 people participated in the two experiments. 

The game is simple. You roll a dice on a computer and report the result, which is sent to your partner, who also rolls his dice and reports the result. This is done a total of 10 times. Two identical throws (e.g. two 1s) give a financial reward, and the higher the throws (up to two 6s), the higher the reward. All reports were compared with the actual probability of participants making two identical dice rolls (16.7 per cent).  

Significant difference 

The results of the first study were quite significant. Couples who could not communicate with each other reported 44.6 per cent doubles over the 10 rounds, while couples who could write to each other via online chat reported an average of 60.5 per cent. Individuals reported an average of 32.8 per cent doubles. 

"It makes sense that communication supports cheating, because it makes cheating easier. What’s more, you're not the only one cheating, so it may be perceived as less immoral," says Mathilde Tønnesen. 

In the second trial, the setup from the first study was repeated, but with the change of adding a group of pairs that could communicate but not about the task itself. Instead, they could communicate about general everyday things. 

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Didn't know each other 

The result was again quite significant. While the non-communicating group reported an average of 34 per cent doubles, the restrictive communicating group reported 43 per cent, while the fully communicating group reported 51.6 per cent doubles. 

"The fact that you cheat more when you're in a group was consistent with our hypothesis, but it was still a bit surprising how much it matters. After all, we put together total strangers. They didn't know each other, yet there was a significantly higher degree of cheating," says Mathilde Tønnesen. 

Mathilde Tønnesen explains how the study can be applied: 

"The study gives us a deeper understanding of dishonesty when we collaborate. Especially if we can communicate. As our everyday lives are largely made up of collaborating with others and talking to each other, it's important to understand the potential unintended consequences of communication. These results give us the first glimpses that communication not only promotes cheating through coordination, but in itself communication may give us a sense of being more connected with the other party, with a consequential motivation to cheat together" 

The results of the study have been published in the renowned Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 


We strive to comply with Universities Denmark’s principles for good research communication. For this reason, we provide the following information as a supplement to this article:  :

Type of study Experiment
External collaboration partners No
External funding Center for Integrative Business Psychology, Aarhus BSS
Conflict of interests No
Other No
Link to scientific article 
Contact information

Mathilde H. Tønnesen,