I was recently troubled by some students cheating on my college course exams. Once I became aware of the cheating, I took steps to try to stop it, and I was surprised that a couple of students continued to try to cheat even after I had informed the class of the severe penalties for cheating.

With a 30-plus year teaching career, this wasn’t the first time, of course. The worst cheating incident years ago was when fraternity members got together with hand-held copiers to systematically copy a final exam, piece-by-piece, knowing that there was a second final scheduled the next day. Most of the fraternity members planned to take the second final, after they received the stolen exam and had the answers. [When I found out hours after the first exam, I stayed up most of the night making a completely different final exam, and admit that I took some delight in seeing all the puzzled and frightened male faces in the large lecture hall flipping frantically through the pages of a brand new test].

I also read this past week about severe cheating that occurs in on-line college courses – where sophisticated cheaters are able to get As in courses without learning anything at all, simply by figuring out how to beat the testing system. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Research suggests that most of us, if in the right circumstances, would indeed lie, cheat, or steal.

The research of Duke University professor of psychology and behavioral economics, Dan Ariely, sheds some light on why so many students would cheat on exams (and why, if given the opportunity, most of us might do the same, or even steal a little money).

The Matrix Task

In Ariely’s studies, research participants are presented with several matrices of math problems to solve, and told to tally the number of correct answers. They then put the test in a shredder (actually the tests are not shredded), and they are asked to report the number of correct answers, receiving a cash award for each correctly solved matrix. Ariely’s results show that most people cheat a little bit – overreporting slightly the number of matrices they solved correctly. A few people grossly cheat, and only a few people are completely honest.

Ariely’s research goes on to show that the incidence of cheating is not greatly affected by the chances of getting caught, but cheating increases if another participant is seen blatantly cheating – a modeling effect. Contrary to traditional economic models, cheating was unaffected by the size of the monetary award. In fact, when pay for each correct matrix was raised from 50 cents to $10, cheating actually declined! So, people will cheat a little, but not a lot (think of income tax fudging – most only do it a little).

Reasons Why We Cheat, Lie, Steal

Some of the reasons for this bad behavior include rationalization: “they seem to have a lot of money, so a little bit won’t matter”; or, my favorite from an on-line college course cheater: “If they [the on-line universities] make it so easy to cheat, then they deserve it.”

Other reasons why many people cheat, according to Ariely’s and colleagues’ research include a culture that condones cheating/stealing, a personal history of dishonest behavior, stealing to benefit others [another form of rationalization], and a lack of supervision or control (“if they don’t even care enough to lock their bike, then it’s ok to steal it”).

So how can we prevent such bad behavior that seems all too common in the general population? Ariely’s research has some answers. First, priming people for honesty seems to help. For example, participants who were reminded of an honor code or who reviewed the 10 commandments cheated or stole less. In addition, having people sign at the top of a self-disclosure form (“I certify that everything below is true”), increases honesty as opposed to having them sign at the bottom (“I certify that everything above is true”).

This suggests something that I have believed all along: People need to be educated about ethics and honesty. People need to be reminded about the virtue of honesty and constantly encouraged. The importance of honesty, integrity, and good character must be emphasized by parents, teachers, and leaders. As it is, most people find it all too easy to engage in a little lying, cheating, or stealing, and simply rationalize their bad behavior. Constant reminders and positive role models should help.

Here’s a Wall Street Journal article summarizing Ariely’s work.

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