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Risky business: Volkswagen’s special brand of cheating

Why do we cheat? In light of the recent VW scandal we thought it was worth asking what makes us do it—and are there specific ‘national ways’ of cheating?

We all know how to cheat. We practiced cheating playfully as children and some of us perfected it along the way. But while twisting the truth in our early years brought with it the thrill of new-found boldness, the later, more elaborate forms are riskier business: So, why do we decide to cheat? In light of the recent VW scandal we thought it was worth asking what makes us do it—and are their specific ‘national ways’ of cheating?

(Some of) The reasons why we cheat

Psychology is always a good place to start; for some psychologists cheating is dependent on moral development: the more advanced our moral development, the less likely we are to cheat. The claim here is that that as we grow older we become better at moral reasoning and become less egotistical. This means that once a child understands that the people surrounding her have their own thoughts, feelings, ideas and perceptions that might differ from her own, she is less oblivious to the consequences of cheating because she is more aware of other people’s expectations, rules, world views. She is therefore less likely to ‘naturally’ cheat. Others make a more rational-economic argument: people weigh the potential costs of a lie against the benefits of the lie and decide accordingly. While others still, privilege a more emotional approach: cheating, according to these scholars, results from a reasoning process that is subjective. It is based on how we think about the world around us, how we perceive others, and how we perceive ourselves.

It gets more interesting: Cheating seems to be dependent on positioning and aligning ourselves with our surroundings. A recent study, for example, shows that we tend to cheat more when the light is dimmed, when we are invisible. In other words, when we are less likely to get caught. Once we feel observed we calibrate our behaviour to fit with what we perceive to be with the moral standards of whoever is watching, with the outside world. Our cheating depends on whether we think the observer finds cheating acceptable. The world around us seems to have lower moral standards and okay with cheating? Let’s join them and cheat too. The world around us is upright and honest? We’d better not.

This is why the VW case is so interesting: none of us (and not the Germans themselves) think of Germany as having low moral standards, or a lax attitude to cheating. Recent events and German attitudes to the Greek crisis over the past few years for example, gave to many the impression that Germany had a particularly rigid conception of the rules, a moralistic conception of the economy, and a tendency to want to impose its uncompromising world-view on the rest of Europe (and especially on the Greeks – depicted as less honest, more corrupt, and more likely to cheat). So how does cheating get justified in a culture that prides itself on being so collectively honest?

Cheating cultures?

Cheating is often ascribed to cultures where the system is already perceived as ‘cheating’, where there is no other choice but to join in. So Germany was never the focus of attention: that’s not how the German system is perceived. Rather we all think of Germany as rule-bound. Perhaps even rigidly so. This is in part why the recent scandal around Volkswagen caused such a collective international gasp of outraged surprise.

Is there a German way of cheating? After all, a Volkswagen is an archetypical German product, an emblem of Germany’s purposefully productive capitalism, of which the automotive sector is an integral part: 1 out of every 7 jobs in Germany depends on it.

There seems to be something about this kind of cheating that points to a more common German understanding of cheating: an official emphasis on, and upholding of, honesty–yet an informal agreement to manipulate secretly and indirectly. One might contrast this to an Italian way of cheating: more bombastic and perhaps not a little bent on arguing that the system is so pernicious, that cheating is a necessary, and sometimes near-laudable by-product. This attitude explains, perhaps, a tolerance for leaders who are seen as ‘street-smart’, over leaders who are ‘virtuous’—think Berlusconi vs Prodi.

A recent study by YouGov that explored “what makes the Germans tick” found that while a great majority of Germans think of themselves as upstanding and reliable, 71 % burn red lights if they think no one is looking.

Volkswagen cheated, but the outcome was not a lie. More to the point: the lie was ‘detached’ and implanted into software: the machine was lying. And the (rigged) result was that of a long-chain of calculations, by many people and then a machine. It would be very hard to pinpoint responsibility. Something that could explain VW’s CEO, Martin Winterkorn’s initial attitude and reluctance to resign. Volkswagen´s motors cheated on the process so as to uphold the illusion of a ‘correct’ outcome. In this case, cheating – from the cheater’s perspective – is part of an elaborate and engineered process, it is not a moral choice anymore, it becomes removed and it seems an almost logical outcome, because it results from a functional process. This is easily observable in the language that national newspapers use: German reports mostly talk about “manipulation”. English and American reports talk about “cheating”. The origin of these words is telling: manipulation is a word that stems from the field of engineering, of adjusting with your hands (manus). Manipulation, in other words, is a trick, a sleight of hand, an elaborate game. Cheating, or more to the point, lying is an immoral act that stems from deep within’s one being, perhaps even from one’s soul. As a result cheating might be perceived as the more ‘courageous’ act for which you would have to face the consequences: ones that bring public, moral opprobrium.

The cheater takes it all? The cultural risks of cheating

Because Germany is often perceived as and perceives itself officially as “honest”, the lie must be cleverly orchestrated: it cannot stay a lie, rather it needs to become practiced with finesse: gingerly doffing its cap at morality, emphasising procedure, manipulation and, technical prowess. A machine that doesn’t recognise the rules of real-life but governs by its own rules is the perfect solution. The rather flat explanation that Volkswagen has given recently (“we messed up”) does not counter this detachment, in fact it reinforces it.

In an era punctuated by declining levels of trust in most institutions and corporate organisations and dominated by demands for radical transparency and accountability, bending the truth may come at a higher and higher cost. How firms and institutions evaluate the demands from the public and the ebb and flow of these pressures will vary according to national and even regional conventions, habits, and myths. Yet big data is generating readable patterns of behaviour where these were once inscrutable and social media is enabling cross-national alliances between consumers. How to be accountable is the next big question.


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