Are Cheaters the Exception or the Rule?

What psychological studies suggest about whether we are honest people

Posted Jul 30, 2013

Cheating is very much in the news again. Anthony Weiner and the Internet. Baseball players and performance enhancing drugs. 70 Harvard University undergraduate students and their take-home exam in a government class.

Are these just exceptional cases, and most of us are basically honest, trustworthy people? Or instead are most of us inclined to cheat too when the right opportunity comes along?

We tend to believe that cheating is wrong, at least in most cases. And we tend to also think that we are fairly honest, moral people. But what would we really do in tempting situations? There have been a number of fascinating cheating studies in recent years which put people’s character to the test. Let me mention just two. The psychologists Edward Diener at the University of Illinois and Mark Wallbom at the University of Washington had participants in their study take a test designed to measure their intelligence, with the explicit instruction to not go more than five minutes. The experimenter then set a timer bell for five minutes, left the room, and watched what happened through a two-way mirror. The results were striking—71% of participants kept going after the bell sounded (1976: 110).

Or imagine you are a participant in a more recent study by Lisa Shu at Northwestern University and her colleagues (2011). You receive $10 and a worksheet to complete with 20 problems. Each correct answer will earn you $0.50. If you are in the control group, then when the time is up, an experimenter checks your answers for you and oversees how much you should get paid.

But now suppose instead you are in the “shredder” group, where you are told to count the number of correct answers, shred your original worksheet, and then pay yourself the correct amount. The experimenter will not check any of this, and you are completely confident of that fact. In other words, you can write down whatever number of correct answers you want and get paid accordingly, and no one would know the difference!

So, what do you expect the results in the two groups to be? Here is how they turned out:

No Opportunity to Cheat                    7.97 problems answered correctly (group average)
Opportunity to Cheat                          13.22 problems answered correctly (group average)

It is hard to believe that the participants in the second group were that much better at the problems! Rather, it seems much more likely that they took advantage of an opportunity to cheat and get away with it.

What should we make of these results? Of course these are only two studies, but many others have found similar patterns of cheating behavior. What I personally conclude is that this evidence gives us good reason to think that most people are not honest. For it seems that a person who is honest would regularly refrain from cheating. This is especially true when he or she is a free and willing participant in the situation, and the relevant rules are fair and appropriate (as they were in the two studies above). An honest person would refrain from cheating, even if by cheating he is assured of acquiring some benefit for himself.

Knowing that most people are not honest can have all kinds of practical implications. Here is just one—if you are a middle school, high school, college, or professional school teacher, do not give take-home exams where the students are supposed to work by themselves and not look online or in the textbook for the answers. You are just asking for trouble.

Maybe, though, this conclusion about our lack of honesty is not so surprising. Maybe the nightly news and all the stories about infidelities, steroids, academic cheating, and the like have conditioned us to be pessimistic about human character these days.

Okay, fair enough. But now here is another claim—most of us are not dishonest people either. As we will see in my next post, the very same studies also show some bright spots about our characters too (here is a hint—note that the group average in the shredder group was only 13.22 correct answers when it could have been 20!).

How can this be? If you are not honest then doesn’t that automatically make you a dishonest person? Don’t you have to be one or the other? I hope to think more about these questions in the coming months.

Note: Questions about whether we are virtuous (honest, compassionate, courageous) or vicious (dishonest, coldhearted, cowardly) have fascinated me for some time, and I am very excited to have this opportunity to share some of my thoughts about character on this blog. These are also the questions we have been working on at the Character Project (, based at Wake Forest University.