When the Stakes Are High, Who's Likely to Cheat?

Research explores the personality of those who cheat on a high-stakes test.

Posted Jul 25, 2020

Taking academic tests in school can determine your grades and, potentially, your life options. That importance can lead some people to find ways to put the odds in their favor by seeking to game the system. Although cheating on a test is generally thought of as a behavior restricted to the young, might it also not apply to people of any age at which a test score could determine their future? 

You might have a friend who’s admitted having taken the dishonest route to passing a test, perhaps one required to gain some type of certification. Many employers and even volunteer organizations require that individuals take an online course on topics such as bullying, harassment, or discrimination. To pass these courses, the test-taker must watch a video or read a series of vignettes and then answer questions based on those. However, as your friend has done, people can just skip to the questions and go back and answer them repeatedly until enough are graded as correct to be able to gain the necessary credentials.

In July 2020, President Donald Trump self-reported his “perfect” score on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MOCA), a brief memory screening device used in clinical settings as a first step toward diagnosing individuals with possible neurocognitive disorder. In a segment on CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta consulted expert diagnosticians in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease to discuss the MOCA’s strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, as with other screening tools for diagnosing cognitive disorders, the MOCA has only limited value due to its brevity and the minimal data it can provide.

The MOCA has another clear limitation, however: It is easily available online. Anyone could potentially gain an advantage by practicing responses in advance. Clearly, for some people, the MOCA is indeed a high-stakes test given the potential outcome of a poor score. A Medicare physical involves a shorter but similar set of items, and although the test isn't online, the same items are given to patients every year.

What might lead people to stack the deck in their favor prior to taking an abilities test? Some insight into this question can be gained from a recent paper by Dámaris Cuadrado and colleagues (2020) of the University of Santiago de Compostela. The research team examined the contributions of personality to “counterproductive academic behaviors (CAB)” using data gathered across 64 previously conducted studies involving over 31,000 students. Their insights suggest that there is a certain constellation of traits that makes people more likely to take academic shortcuts, at least in school settings.

The authors note with appropriate concern that CAB is a widespread educational problem, with perhaps as many as 75% of all students in the U.S. having copied their work from another student and 33% having outright cheated on a test. After examining all of the possible contributions to the 7 forms of CAB the authors identified, including cheating on a test, the authors reported that the people most likely to cheat tended to be low on conscientiousness. The cheaters were also lower on the trait of agreeableness, meaning that they weren’t particularly nice people.

Looking further down the list of CAB, those low in conscientiousness were also more likely not even to show up to school, to misuse resources, put in less than their maximum effort, and break rules. This profile of student cheaters helps to provide insight into why some young people take such a dishonest approach to education. The question is, however, do they “grow out” of this behavior or do they continue to be cheaters throughout their adult lives?

A 2010 study by Texas A&M’s Winfred Arthur, Jr. and colleagues can help answer this question. Arthur et al's focus was on the kind of test adults take in relation to their jobs, notably the ones that test their abilities and personality suitability. As the authors note, there is good evidence that internet-based tests are as valid as paper-and-pencil, and therefore suitable for use by employers. What’s less well understood is the problem of what to do about the test-takers who take advantage of the unproctored nature of these exams to fake their scores.

To tackle this problem, Arthur and his colleagues reasoned that people would be more likely to cheat on high-stakes exams than on low-stakes exams. Recruiting an online sample of 296 adults (mean age 36 years), Winfred et al. compared performance between job-seekers and job-holders under high- and low-stakes conditions on a speeded cognitive ability test. One year later, participants completed the same test, which now was under the low-stakes condition for both groups, as it was administered as part of the research project and not in a job context. 

The results showed that people actually did tend to receive higher scores when they took the second test, but not generally due to cheating. Even though the two tests were given a year apart, people were able to improve through practice. Only about 8% of participants seem to have cheated based on comparisons of their performance across the two test occasions. So far, then, the high stakes didn't seem to matter for this group of adults.

However, the stakes did come into play when the research team examined performance on a personality test also given at the two time points. Now, many more participants did seem to cheat under the high stakes condition, exaggerating their—guess what—agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. In fact, about one-third of job applicants had more favorable scores on these traits than did job incumbents at that first time of testing. 

Thus, although people don't seem likely to (or perhaps able to) cheat on a cognitive test involving speed, when it comes to engineering the impression they give based on responses they can control, there are plenty of adults who take advantage of the chance to look good. The cheaters in school may very well be the ones who go on to be the fabricators in their adult life, finding ways to exploit systems that allow them to distort their abilities when they need to make a good impression.

The result of cheating, however, can be disastrous when cheaters are found to have faked their abilities or personality. Imagine what it’s like when those seemingly conscientious employees turn out to be slackers as their laziness plays out on the job. What kind of recommendation will those employees get when, as is likely to happen, they’re back in the job market? Not only did they fail to perform their job duties properly, but they lied about their personalities.

To sum up, cheating your way to a good score may serve to satisfy a person’s immediate goals but won’t help provide you with an honest assessment of yourself. Being able to accept your abilities, even if they’re not particularly stellar, can help set you on a path toward true fulfillment of your life goals.


Arthur, W., Jr., Glaze, R. M., Villado, A. J., & Taylor, J. E. (2010). The magnitude and extent of cheating and response distortion effects on unproctored Internet-based tests of cognitive ability and personality. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 18(1), 1–16. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2389.2010.00476.x

Cuadrado, D., Salgado, J. F., & Moscoso, S. (2020). Personality, intelligence, and counterproductive academic behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi:10.1037/pspp0000285

Patnode, C. D., Perdue, L. A., Rossom, R. C., Rushkin, M. C., Redmond, N., Thomas, R. G., & Lin, J. S. (2020). Screening for cognitive impairment in older adults: Updated evidence report and systematic review for the US Preventive Services Task Force. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 323(8), 764–785. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.22258