My university is instituting a new approach to keeping students honest. In the face of surveys that indicate the high degree of student cheating, this seems a worthy goal.

Hofstra now urges faculty to include the following statement for students to subscribe to or sign the following statement on papers, projects and other work: "I pledge on my honor that I have done this work with honesty and integrity, without giving or receiving unauthorized assistance."

Will making such a scout’s pledge really put a dent in student cheating? Studies indicate that they may well. The work of behavioral economist Dan Ariely, of MIT, as reported in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, demonstrates the power of such statements. In one series of experiments, students were paid to give correct answers on a test. Before handing in their answers, they transferred them to another sheet, which contained the correct answers. Cheating was easy.

Those students who signed a statement reminding them of an honor code just before transferring their answers or were asked to write down what they remembered about the Ten Commandments engaged in far less cheating, in some cases eliminating it altogether, than those who did neither of these activities.

Reminders work because they act as primers. The priming effect unconsciously shapes the choices we make. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, gives the following example as “a perfect demonstration of a priming effect.” An office provided coffee and tea; workers dropped in money into an “honesty box,” above which was posted suggested prices. Then, without explanation, a new image was presented each week above the price list. One image was that of flowers, the alternative picture was that of a pair of eyes that looked directly at the observer. The results are fascinating: on average, user contributed three times as much on weeks in which the eyes appeared as they did on flower weeks.

So will pledge signing by students increase honesty? Yes, if it is administered close to the time of the exam or writing the paper. Students will be primed to act ethically.

Reducing cheating is a good thing. But the approach raises a troubling matter. In a way students are being manipulated. Some call this soft paternalism. The approach capitalizes on the fact that behavior can, and often is, manipulated. In this case, the priming of the unconscious is for a good end. But isn’t this what benevolent dictators are made of?

The university isn’t a democracy. Students don’t have equal say as to what is taught and how. Once they enter the university, they already are in a constructed environment meant to bring about a desired outcome. Here are they are students, not citizens.

In this case, maneuvering students away from their baser towards their higher selves is justified. Beware when the process falls into the hands of those whose aim isn’t the students’ good but the university’s finances.

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