On Cheating

Here’s an article on cheating that I read recently: http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=80757

A couple of quotes:

It was once a common schoolyard taunt, delivered with a snarling, singsong cadence: “Cheaters never PROSper! Cheaters never PROSper!” The perp, having been caught in the act of copying from a neighbor’s paper, would reflexively hiss: “I am not a cheater!”

A rash of cheating scandals at leading universities has again aimed a spotlight on the issue and renewed interest in understanding what motivates people to flout the rules. Researchers have found that even excellent students can be tempted to cheat when certain conditions line up. When we’re feeling tired or overwhelmed; when the likelihood of getting away with it is high; and when there is a perception that others are cheating, too, it can be easy to rationalize taking the low road.

Monin says two conditions clearly can motivate cheating among high-achieving students: first, the perception that “everybody else is cheating, so it can’t be that bad;” second, the worry that “I’ll fall behind unless I cheat.” (The same reasoning was used to explain steroid use by baseball players and blood doping by professional cyclists.) The psychological underpinnings of cheating are important, but administrators, researchers and ethicists are trying to understand whether other factors—technology, parenting styles and pressure-cooker environments on campuses—are driving more cheating today.


Duke University researcher Dan Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics who wrote the 2012 book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Ariely notes that for many years the dominant school of thought about cheating followed the theories of Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker. Becker argued that people rationally analyze their decisions, weigh the pros and cons, assess the risks and penalties, and land on a choice that produces the best outcome for the lowest cost.

Ariely decided to test that. He created experiments involving math problems in which subjects were tempted by greater or lesser rewards, and higher and lower chances of getting caught, and in which the behavior of others around them informed their mindset. Based on his results in one experiment, 70 percent were tempted to cheat at least a little. But it turns out the value of the reward plays a lesser role than Becker would have predicted. Instead, people seemed to calculate the largest benefit they could get for a transgression that would still allow them to tell themselves they weren’t a cheater. “Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals,” Ariely says.

I recommend reading the whole article.

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