Why We Cheat

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about cheating.  Not just the usual articles we’ve all seen regarding salacious cheating scandals in school districts, admissions programs, and other high-profile areas of testing, but articles on WHY people cheat, and how we, as humans, are wired for deceitful behavior.  I find the topic fascinating, as human nature is such a fickle thing.  As testing professionals, learning about the internal motivators that both compel us toward and steer us away from deceitful test taking behaviors can help us better protect our exams from cheats.

My interest in cheating-as-human-nature was piqued when, before a long plane flight, my wife handed me a magazine I’d never seen before, “Scientific American Mind.”  The cover article title was a real attention grabber—“Why We Cheat:  Deceit is part of what makes us human, but we can win over our flawed nature.”  For a Caveoner, this was must-read material!

Co-authors Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall present well-researched findings regarding our propensity to cheat.  It’s alarming to be informed that nearly all of us, at one time or another, cheat.  The authors cite the results of research studies conducted by Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke (Ariely has published many of these results in his suitably-titled book, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty”).  According to Ariely, most humans are perfectly willing to cheat, but only a little.  Indeed, he discovered that when students involved in a study were presented with an opportunity to cheat, scores were not inflated by a few kids cheating heavily, but rather, by MANY kids cheating a bit.

Another interesting cheating trait–Ariely discovered that when one crosses the cheating threshold, he/she will likely commit the act again.  It’s a domino effect, as cheating once leads to further cheating.  The dynamic is similar to when a dieter breaks down and eats a donut.  It is human nature to justify a repeat occurrence, along the lines of, “Oh what the heck, I’ve broken my diet, I may as well enjoy a second donut.”

This proclivity to cheat is heightened by a number of factors.  I was surprised to discover that a fear of failure is a more powerful driver toward cheating behaviors than a desire for a reward or gain. Research shows that in real-world situations, dishonesty is more prevalent when people face the risk of a significant loss, such as money or a career path.  Studies reveal that while most of want to follow our moral compass and avoid making a cheating-choice, fear of losing something we value overrides our usual tendencies, compelling one to defraud.  Thus, “Dread is a more powerful motivator (to cheat) than the desire for reward.”

Cheating will increase, too, if we witness rule-breaking by others with no negative consequences. Its classic copycat behavior:  If I perceive that everyone else is gaining unfair advantage, my doing so will only level the playing field.  We see this attitude reflected in surveys of high school and college kids, where many share the belief that they must cheat to remain competitive.

While the outlook appears grim (we possess an innate tendency to cheat; outside pressures and fears compound those tendencies; and, if we see others breaking the rules, we’re far more likely to do the same), there is good news, too.

The article highlights another human characteristic that we, as test professionals, must leverage:  Our self-image is a powerful tool in promoting honest behavior. Research indicates that we simply don’t cheat when it makes us feel bad about ourselves.  And, when we do cheat, we create elaborate rationalizations for the behavior to avoid negative self-images.  With this knowledge, test program managers can utilize a host of tools to help minimize cheating behaviors.  Tactics such as instituting honor codes; reinforcing them consistently; offering ethics instruction; highlighting the deleterious impacts of cheating; and requiring signed statements that test-takers won’t break the rules are proven to significantly reduce peoples’ willingness to cheat.  So, while we’re all just a bunch of depraved cheats, we’re also incredibly attuned to what we feel is right and wrong.  Fickle, indeed!


Steve Addicott

Vice President of Sales, Caveon Test Security

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