Go figure!

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Two of the many disturbing findings coming out of a survey conducted in 2009 by the Josephson Institute, as reported in their press release, were

High school character matters – Regardless of current age, people who cheated on exams in high school two or more times are considerably more likely to be dishonest later in life


 Attitude matters – Regardless of age, people who believe lying and cheating are a necessary part of success (the report calls them cynics) are more likely to lie and cheat. In fact, this belief is one of the most significant and reliable predictors of dishonest behavior in the adult world.

This is based on responses to an online survey of nearly 7,000 adults.  The report notes that this cannot be viewed as a random survey since participants could choose or not whether to participate; there is no indication as to how these nearly 7,000 people came across the survey. Nevertheless,  an independent analysis of the survey methodology and analysis concluded that the survey was valid, consistent, and without bias (“Character Study Reveals Predictors of Lying and Cheating“)

Of course, in any survey, one relies on the respondents to answer accurately and honestly. In an earlier survey, this time of 30,000 teens in US high schools, in answer to the question “>How many questions on this survey did you answer with complete honesty?”   just over 25% of respondents admitted to not telling the truth on at least one of their answers.

In latest book, behavioural economist / psychologist Dan Ariely relates a number of studies he has performed on factors and attitudes which make people more, or less, likely to take the opportunity to cheat. It is fascinating, and occasionally sad and frightening, reading. While it seems that most people are basically honest, we so often dull our ethical standards and engage in a little cheating, breaking of the rules, perhaps even stealing. And we rationalise what we do. “Everyone else does it.”  “I’m not likely to be caught.”  “If I’m caught, the consequences aren’t so bad.” “Nobody will know.”  “I’m not hurting anybody.”  And so on.

Not you? You don’t break the speed limit? You never read personal email during work-time? You always tell the shop assistant that she has just undercharged you? You never take an extra conference handout (for a friend) when passing them on to the table next to you?

It seems that most of us cheat, in large or in small ways, and that we are very good at rationalising our behaviour. We are good, ethical, most of the time, but most of us can be tempted in particular circumstances.

So, how many people cheat? How many cheat in given situations? How many indulge in particular kinds of cheating, but not in other kinds? How can we find out?

It’s not easy to find out. We can make a count of cases we discover, but what of the cases we do not discover?  Unless we are infallible, isn’t it possible that some people might cheat and get away with it?

We can conduct surveys and ask people if they have ever cheated. But, as the Josephson Institute study shows, there is no guarantee that we will be told the truth.  This may be even more so in online studies, should the participant fear that his or her responses might be traceable.

All of which makes Dan Ariely’s studies all the more useful. He has three or four stock tests which he uses to test behaviour in different circumstances. Typically, he asks a number of volunteers to take one of the tests, and so gets an average for the number of correct answers the group achieves in a set time.  This is his control group’s score.  Then he asks other participants to complete the same test, but gives them opportunities to cheat; if enough do, then the average number of correct answers will be higher than that of the control group.  The difference between those average scores indicates the degree of cheating which seems likely to occur in those circumstances.

In one of his standard tests, for instance, the control group solves problems, check their answers against an answer-sheet, and then have their responses double-checked by an invigilator, who pays them according to the number of right answers.  And the marks they get are recorded and averaged.  The experimental group is typically invited to self-report the number of answers they got right, and then to shred their papers, unchecked, and again they get paid for the right answers they claim to have achieved.  Those in the self-reporting shredding group usually attain much higher average scores and get paid more than than do those in the control group.

In a variation on this test, Ariely gave participants in the experimental group a pair of sunglasses to wear for half-an-hour before the test.  A third of the participants were told that the Chloé sunglasses they received were the genuine article; a second third were told that their Chloé sunglasses were fake; the third group were not told whether their sunglasses were genuine or fake. In fact, all the sunglasses were genuinely genuine!

All three experimental groups took part in the shredding test, so all were given opportunity to cheat that the control group did not have.  About 30% of those told that their sunglasses were real took the opportunity to cheat.  About  40% of those given no information as to the authenticity of their sunglasses cheated. But of those who thought their sunglasses were fake, as many as 74% claimed scores higher than the norm.

While still wearing their sunglasses, participants were given a second test, this time on a computer monitor. The computer was programmed to record  their responses, and the nature of the task gave opportunities to cheat.  The results were the same. Those who thought they were wearing authentic sunglasses cheated less than those with no information; those in the group who thought their sunglasses were fake cheated far more than the others.

Analysis of the responses revealed one more nugget of information.  Cheating was at first slow, tentative. But as the test progressed, the rate of cheating tended to rise, especially amongst those who thought their sunglasses were fake.

Ariely suggests that this series of experiments demonstrates that when we feel good about ourselves (in this case induced by wearing expensive sunglasses), we are more likely to live up to our moral standards. When we think we are less than genuine, we are more likely to be led astray, to take the opportunities that arise. And again, it might be hard for us to lower our standards but, once we do, the downward slide could well be rapid; once we have cheated once we are more likely to do it again.

Ariely’s conclusions echo the finding of the Josephson study with which I began this essay : those who cheat are more likely to cheat again.

It is not all gloom. In his book, Ariely offers a  number of ways in which we can regain the moral high ground – including increased self-awareness. If we know how our brains work, if we know how we so often cheat ourselves we will be more alert and might do something to counter the temptations.

Additionall, the press release for the latest of the Josephson Institute’s two-yearly studies of teen behaviour and attitudes is headlined “For The First Time In A Decade, Lying, Cheating And Stealing Among American Students Drops” <http://charactercounts.org/programs/reportcard/2012/index.html> and, in particular and for the first time since these studies started, there’s a large drop in the number of students admitting to cheating in exams during the previous year, and a drop (admittedly a smaller drop) in the percentage of students admitting to plagiarism.

And the latest of Donald McCabe’s studies into plagiarism suggests that, while the nature of cheating is changing and for kinds of cheating may be increasing, the number of students who plagiarise their work may actually be falling.  This I intend to explore more closely in a later post.

References to the print material:

Ariely, Dan. The (honest) truth about dishonesty. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

McCabe, Donald, Kenneth D. Butterfield and Linda K. Trevino. Cheating in college: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Print.