It is estimated that cheats and frauds cost nearly $3.7 trillion each year to U.S. academic institutions and business organizations. Even though the moral cause of cheating can be explained by a number of theories, researchers seem to have identified a biological cause for cheating and unethical behavior -- human hormones.

A team of researchers from Harvard University and University of Texas, Austin looked at the role played by the stress hormone cortisol and the reproductive hormone testosterone in controlling unethical behavior in adults. The researchers found that the endocrine system in the human body plays a double role, in addition to the production of the hormones. That is, the hormones were found to encourage and reinforce cheating in individuals.

According to the researchers, the hormone levels in an individual first dictate the likelihood of that person engaging in cheating or fraud. Next, the change in hormone levels predicts the unethical behavior in the individual while he or she is committing the act of cheating.

“Although the science of hormones and behavior dates back to the early 19th century, only recently has research revealed just how powerful and pervasive the influence of the endocrine system is on human behavior,” said the lead author, Dr. Robert Josephs of the University of Texas at Austin.

During the study, the researchers asked a group of 117 subjects to participate in a math test. The participants were free to complete the test, grade it and report the number of correct answers themselves. In addition, they were told that the greater number of correct answers, the greater their earnings.

The research team collected saliva samples from the participants before and after the test. The analysis of the samples revealed that people with elevated testosterone levels overstated the number of correct answers.

“Elevated testosterone decreases the fear of punishment while increasing sensitivity to reward. Elevated cortisol is linked to an uncomfortable state of chronic stress that can be extremely debilitating,” Josephs explained in a statement.

“Testosterone furnishes the courage to cheat, and elevated cortisol provides a reason to cheat.”