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Fraudsters Get High on Fraud, Auditors Get High on… Not Committing Fraud?

This groundbreaking idea brought to you by the AICPA Insights blog:

According to a recent blog entry on the New York Times’ website, researchers have found that people who cheated, and got away with it, experienced a thrill, self-satisfaction and a sense of superiority. While that sensation was not as strong as the high that rats apparently get from eating Oreo cookies, it illustrates how exciting cheating can be.

The AICPA's post fails to mention part of that "research," so let's take a look:

In the study’s initial experiments, participants were asked to predict how they would feel if they cheated. Bad, they generally reported.

Another set of participants was given a baseline assessment of their moods. Then they took a word-unscrambling test. After finishing, they were handed an answer key, told to check their answers and asked to report the number of correct ones. For every right answer, they would earn $1.

Participants did not know that researchers could tell if they corrected wrong answers; 41 percent did so.

The follow-up assessment of their moods indeed showed that the cheats, on average, felt an emotional boost that the honest participants didn’t.

In the context of ethical CPA behavior, this really means nothing unless you're backdating workpapers as the PCAOB inspectors are banging down the door.

The AICPA post continues:

Just as The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study points to a cheater’s high, I posit that CPAs experience a rush from doing solid work that is extremely powerful. While I couldn’t find any science on a dopamine-type high associated with performing an audit in accordance with GAAS, no one can deny the feeling you get from completing a job well done and knowing how much the public relies on your objectivity and attention to detail. And who among us hasn’t experienced the positive effects of doing the right thing, like returning a lost wallet or cell phone? The college my daughter attends has a lost-and-found Facebook page, and I’m astounded at the number of students who find cell phones, computers, car keys and jewelry and make a serious effort to locate the owners.

There is absolutely no way in hell you can convince me even the World's Best Auditor gets as high doing what he is supposed to do as Bernie Madoff did seeing all that money roll in knowing he had scammed all those investors. NONE. The auditor may find joy in his work but to call it a "high" seems a stretch (as the author points out, having zero science to link this theory to).

Human beings are assholes. "Doing the right thing" may have had its moment in a Spike Lee film but look around you and you realize that most humans give very little of a shit about doing the right thing. Even you, oh ethical CPA, are a flawed human being. We all are.

If someone in front of you on an empty street dropped a $20 from their pocket, would you pick it up and attempt to return it to them? Or would you pocket it for yourself? What if the person were two blocks ahead of you, would you make the extra effort to catch up to them to return the money? Answer honestly.

Here's another example: last week, I cheated a parking meter. Well, not exactly, but I did stay in a parking spot for longer than 2 hours and lazily fed the meter throughout the morning. Just as I was leaving the event I was attending, a meter maid came walking toward my car wagging his little ticket-making machine my way. Well, I was getting in my car anyway, what was I going to do, wait around for him to write me the ticket and slap it on my windshield? No way, I've seen Parking Wars. I started my car and peeled off, natch. And guess what? I got a thrill out of beating a ticket. I didn't necessarily do anything wrong technically (and, of course, I could still get a ticket in the mail I suppose) but I did weasel my way out of the ticket. On purpose? Not really. It wasn't until I drove off that I realized I'd narrowly avoided the ticket.

Now, let's say I had stayed in my car and waited for the guy to start, write, and produce a ticket (mind you, he hadn't even gotten to my car at the point I drove off, he was simply headed straight for it). How would I have felt then? Would I have felt some thrill for being a wonderful human being who obeys important municipal regulations like "DON'T YOU DARE PARK IN THIS SPOT FOR LONGER THAN 2 HOURS"? Yeah right. I hold doors open for old ladies and volunteer 20+ hours a week for cat rescue, I don't need to also bend over for The Man to get my rocks off.

Of course auditors feel good about doing a good job. So do meter maids. And my building's cleaning lady. And graphic designers. And EVERYONE who has ever held a job they like just a little bit. But high? Whatever you say.