Runners run, teachers teach, and cheaters cheat. It’s all there in the name, right? Despite the obvious logic, one could argue that even those who aren’t “runners” per se do, on occasion, run (even if it’s just across a busy street), and that we all occasionally teach our kids or friends something they didn’t know before. So what about cheaters?
I’ve written at (book) length about how all of us lie and cheat a little. Sometimes we’re unaware of it, as is the case when we have a conflict of interest or begin believing exaggerated versions of our own stories, and sometimes we’re not. Raise your hand if you’ve ever kept extra change after buying something or told someone you were busy when you weren’t. Exactly. So how does identity (whether it’s “liars” who do these kinds of things or just people who occasionally lie) play into cheating? If someone insinuated that you were a cheater before you even had the chance to bend the rules, would it make you cheat more, less, or the same?
A new experiment shows that unlike the swimming swimmers and baking bakers, would-be “cheaters” actually cheat less. In a series of three experiments, participants were given a chance to claim unearned money at the expense of the researchers. There were two conditions in each experiment, and the only difference between them was in the wording of the instructions. In the first condition participants were told that researchers were interested in “how common cheating is on college campuses,” while in the second, they wondered “how common cheaters are on college campuses.”
This is a subtle but, as it turned out, significant difference. Participants in the “cheating” condition claimed significantly more cash than those in the “cheater” condition, who, similar to when we tempted people who had sworn on the bible, did not cheat at all. This was true in both face-to-face and online interactions, indicating that relative anonymity cannot displace the implications of self-identifying as a cheater. People may allow themselves to cheat sometimes, but not if it involves identifying themselves as Cheaters.
It’s an interesting twist in the complex tapestry of cheating behavior, and I think it could be a useful means of curbing dishonesty; maybe beginning tax documents with a warning that “liars will be prosecuted” would help keep people from lying on their tax returns. Or maybe I’ll try having students recite the old cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater rhyme before tests… although “pumpkin eater” may not be much of an affront to the post-kindergarten set.
Three days after publication of my new book , The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, I was able to find electronic copies on a few websites that specialize in illegal content. These were high quality versions of the book, including the images of the cover, the references, and—my favorite part—the copyright notice.
I was flattered. On one of the sites, the book had been very popular, downloaded over 20,000 times in just a short period of time before my publisher shut it down.
I was also amused. The irony of illegally downloading a book on dishonesty was painfully obvious.
But mainly I was curious, as is my wont. As someone who has been studying dishonesty for many years, what could I learn from the theft of my own book?
My first insight came with a personal conversion. Before it was my book being illegally downloaded, I was more on the “Information wants to be free” end of the spectrum. The sudden, though predictable, shift in my feelings when I found my own work being downloaded for free was a jarring experience. Maybe Information finds complete freedom too threatening, I thought, and maybe it would rather be a bit more protected. It was a very clear example of how my own views of morality are biased – as are everybody’s — based on our immediate perspective.
Recently in a lecture on dishonesty in San Francisco I was explaining, as I always do, that dishonesty is largely founded on our ability to rationalize, and a young guy stood up and argued that downloading music was actually the right thing to do. He said that the companies make lots of money while artists don’t (they make the music for the public, not for profit). And either way, he wouldn’t buy the music anyway so it wouldn’t make a difference. “My friend,” I said, “thank you for proving my point about rationalization.” Then I asked him to imagine if the product in question represented several months or even years of his life. All that time he was creating, writing, editing, and marketing this thing in order to fund his next project. And then everyone downloaded it, illegally, for free. At which point he sat down.
My second thought, after realizing my popularity in the “download for free” category, was about the potential for moral deterioration on a broader scale. Once people start seeing a particular behavior—such as illegally downloading books, music, and movies—as a very common behavior, there is a chance that this sense of social proof will translate into a new understanding of what is right and wrong. Sometimes such social shifts might be desirable—for instance, being part of an interracial couple used to be considered illegal and immoral, but now we see such couples all around us and it helps shape our understanding of social approval. However, the behaviors we most often observe and notice are ones that are outside of the legitimate domain (e.g., doping in sports, infidelity by politicians, exaggerated resumes by CEOs) and in these cases the social proof can change things for the worse.
And then I had an insight about confession. How can we stop such trends toward dishonesty (in this case, broader acceptance of illegal downloading)? The problem is that if someone has acquired 97% of their music illegally, why would they legally buy the next 1%? Would they do it in order to be 4% legal? It turns out that we view ourselves categorically as either good or bad, and moving from being 3% legal to being 4% legal is not a very compelling motivation. This is where confession and amnesty can come into play.
What we find in our experiments is that once we start thinking of ourselves as polluted, there is not much incentive to behave well, and the trip down the slippery slope is likely. This is the bad news. The good news is that in such cases, confession, where we articulate what we have done wrong, is an incredibly effective mechanism for resetting our moral compass. Importing this religious practice into civic life was effective in the Truth and Reconciliation Act in South Africa, where acknowledging the many abuses and violations of the apartheid government allowed the South Africans to forgive past sins, and start fresh.
I think that this same approach could be effective in preventing people from illegally downloading music and books. Why don’t we offer young people (because let’s face it, most of them have some illegally downloaded material on their computers) the opportunity to admit and apologize, receive amnesty for the material they already have, and start fresh.
In the meantime, until we adopt this course of action, I am hoping that the New York Times will create a Best Seller list for a new category – the Most Illegally Downloaded Books.
I’m excited to share the RSA Animate version of my latest book. I love this approach to sharing research, first and foremost because I love the visual metaphors the artist uses to demonstrate ideas (particularly the blend of Sherlock Holmes as the Rational Man, and fairy tales as the opposite). Many of them are just brilliant. Second, who wouldn’t prefer to watch a cartoon version of a person (in this case, me) explain something rather than the real thing? It’s so much more engaging, and who doesn’t miss Saturday morning cartoons?
I was pretty thrilled to make the cut to be in an RSA: I hope you enjoy it as well.
Fans of Stephen Colbert are probably familiar with the term Truthiness, which he introduced in the inaugural episode of the now extremely popular Colbert Report. He explains the word as what we feel to be true rather than what’s factually or arguably true. For instance one might argue that it’s okay not to report a little side income to the IRS because it was insignificant and not from one’s primary employment, and it just feels like found money rather than real taxable income. Your gut tells you so! Or, in one of Colbert’s examples, he explains that it may be possible to find holes in the argument to go to war with Iraq (keep in mind this aired in 2005), but that it felt right to take out Saddam Hussein.
It’s essentially a comical take on the tension we all feel between what we want to be true and what we can argue objectively. To be sure, we can justify a lot of bad behavior this way. We know all kinds of things from traffic violations to cheating on a test to lying about income are wrong, but we do them anyway and justify them with any number of rationalizations. These rationalizations have the flavor of truthiness, and we eat them up.
I think that the term truthiness gives us a way to distinguish this kind of behavior and to remind us to keep watch for it. Colbert mocks the truthiness politicians use to sell their ideas to the public; we can follow suit and mock the truthiness we use to sell rationalizations to ourselves.
Harvard is known for many things, its rigorous academics, its crisp New England campus, its secret societies, and now, what may be the most extensive cheating scandal in Ivy League history. A total of 279 students are now under investigation for collaborating on a take-home exam, with the threat of a year’s expulsion hanging over their heads if found guilty.
Matthew Platt, professor of the course in question (Introduction to Congress), brought the tests before the school’s administration after noticing similarities on a few of the exams, and the investigation mushroomed from there. Students were not permitted to work together on the exam (officially), but now there’s a lot of talk about the instructions, the expectations, and the questions themselves being unclear. I would bet that there are a number of aspects to this situation that led to such a widespread web of cheating.
In general, lack of clarity in expectations is a great instigator of dishonesty, after all, when no one tells you what you can and can’t do, it becomes much easier to decide for yourself what probably is and isn’t okay. For instance, it might seem that asking a peer what he or she thinks a question means if the wording is unclear is pretty reasonable. Then, naturally, that discussion of intent might lead to what the answer could be. In this case, the instructions seem fairly clear, stating that “students may not discuss the exam with others.” However, it appears that the professor cancelled his office hours before the tests were due, which would make it a lot more difficult to clarify any questions. This makes for easy justification.
Also, the subject of the class was Congress, which is itself an institution shot through with ambiguity and famous for its lies and liars. Extensive discussion of corruption could easily engender more dishonest behavior in those taking part (in psychology we call it priming, where we expose participants to a stimulus that alters their behavior as a result, for instance, asking people to do math problems when we want to induce logical thinking). It’s hard to imagine a better primer for dishonesty than a class on Congress. Maybe one on modern financial institutions.
Moreover, people generally agree that cheating in the social domain is often acceptable—we call them little white lies. Like when a friend asks how she looks in something and you say “great!” when you really should say “passable”; that’s often excused from the realm of dishonesty. Or another friend asks what you think of his new girlfriend, and you say “she seems nice!” instead of “she seems boring and self-centered!” We tell these little lies to keep the peace. Yet we generally deny that this is acceptable in the business domain. If you ask your accountant how much money is in such and such an account, giving a number twice as high to make you feel better would be inexcusable. We need to consider that for students, the social and professional circles vastly overlap, which makes it more difficult to separate what’s permissible and what isn’t. This is not to absolve students who cheat, but it’s something to consider. Students often live in the same place they go to class, which is essentially their workplace. Their friends are also their colleagues, and their “bosses” (professors and TAs) are often their friends. All this blending makes can make lines of conduct a bit more indistinct.
None of this is meant to make light of the problem of cheating, or to imply that it’s excusable. But if we want to prevent such things from happening again, we need to think about not just the students, but also the system in which they live and operate. Thus, professors need to work on being crystal clear in instructions. Telling students, for instance, “speak to no one other than the professor or your TA about any aspect of the exam” leaves no gray areas. All that said, it will be interesting to see how things at Harvard shake out …
Every so often I come across a passage in a book where I read it and think, “yes, that’s exactly it!” (“It” being some element or motivation of human behavior that I’ve been thinking about and/or researching.) The following is one of these passages, from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It hits many of the right notes when it comes to illustrating how we enable ourselves to act dishonestly.
It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her. We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand—it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.
“You mean steal it.”
He was trying to get Sasha to use that word, which was harder to avoid in the case of a wallet than with a lot of the things she’d lifted over the past year, when her condition (as Coz referred to it) had begun to accelerate: five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child’s striped scarf, binoculars, a cheese grater, a pocketknife, twenty-eight bars of soap, and eighty-five pens…
First we have Sasha’s rationalization—the owner of the purse is so silly and naïve that she deserves to have her belongings taken. Sasha isn’t just stealing money, she’s teaching the woman how to be more careful. How thoughtful!
On top of this, Sasha offers herself the excuse that stealing the wallet is exciting rather than immoral, similar to the way we can glamorize mobsters and mafia in the movies. We also see, through her discussion with her therapist, that she—at least up until that point—had not considered using the word “steal” for what she’d been doing. It’s easier to lie, cheat, and steal if we call it something else (improvising, exaggerating, borrowing, for instance).
Her avoidance of the proper term (“stealing”), in turn, is enabled by the fact that she’d stolen items that were not themselves monetary (how much is a cheese grater worth anyway). This is the same loophole that allows people not to consider taking office supplies from work stealing the way they would taking some money out of an office cash box. We see the therapist, consequently, trying to get her to accept the term stealing for her actions—in this way, he can nullify some of the rationalizations Sasha puts forth.
A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that students cheat more in online than in face-to-face classes. The article tells the story of Bob Smith (not his real name, obviously) who was a student in an online science course. Bob logged in once a week for half an hour in order to take a quiz. He didn’t read a word of his textbook, didn’t participate in discussions, and still got an A. Bob pulled this off, he explained, with the help of a collaborative cheating effort. Interestingly, Bob is enrolled at a public university in the U.S., and claims to work diligently in all his other (classroom) courses. He doesn’t cheat in those courses, he explains, but with a busy work and school schedule, the easy A is too tempting to pass up.
Bob’s online cheating methods deserve some attention. He is representative of a population of students that have striven to keep up with their instructor’s efforts to prevent cheating online. The tests were designed in a way that made cheating more difficult, including limited time to take the test, and randomized questions from a large test bank (so that no two students took the exact same test).
But the design of the test had two potential flaws: first, students were informed in real time whether their answers were right or wrong; second, they could take the test anytime they wanted. Bob and several friends devised a system to exploit these weaknesses. They took the test one at a time, and posted the questions together with the correct answers in a shared Google document as they went. None of them studied, so the first one or two students often bombed the test, but students who took the test later did quite well.
When we hear such stories of online cheating, the reasons for this behavior seems rather simple: It doesn’t take a criminal mastermind to come up with ways to cheat on a test when there’s no supervision and the entire Internet is at hand. Gone are the quaint days of minutely lettered cheat sheets, formulas written on the underside of baseball cap bills, sweat-smeared key words on students’ palms. Now it’s just a student sitting alone at home, looking up answers online and simply filling them in.
While we can probably all agree that cheating in online courses is easier to pull off than in a physical classroom, I suspect that this simple intuition is far from the whole story, and that e-cheating is more than just a increased ease of getting away with it.
When my colleagues and I have examined the effects of being caught on dishonesty, we found that by and large changing the probability of being caught doesn’t really alter the level of dishonesty. In one of our experiments we asked two Master’s students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev named Eynav, who is blind, and Tali, who has normal sight, to take a cab back and fourth between the train station and the university twenty times. We chose this route for a particular reason: if the driver activates the meter, the fare comes out to around $7 (25 NIS). However, there is a customary rate on this route that costs around $5.50 (20 NIS) if the meter is not activated. Both Eynav and Tali asked to have the meter activated every time they caught a cab, regardless of whether the drivers informed them of the cheaper customary rate. At the end of the ride, the women would pay the fare, wait a few minutes, then take another cab back to where they started.
What we found was that Tali was charged more than Eynav, despite the fact that they both insisted on paying by the meter. Eynav quickly supplied us with the explanation behind this curious phenomenon. “I heard the cab drivers activate the meter when I asked them to,” she told us, “but before we reached our final destination, I heard many of them turn the meter off so that the fare ended up close to 20 NIS.” This never happened to Tali. What’s more, many other experiments with undergraduates yielded similar results. What these results suggest is that simply making the situation such that people cannot get caught does not automatically lead to higher levels of dishonesty.
So if it’s not necessarily the fear of getting caught, what might be the reasons for increased cheating? Based on our research, I would propose that the primary reason is the increased psychological distance between the dishonest act and its significance, and between teacher and student. The difference a little distance can make is rather impressive. Take the results from a study of around 10,000 golfers who were asked—among other things—how likely golfers were to cheat by moving the lie of a ball by 4 inches through various means: by nudging it with the golf club; by kicking it; or by picking it up and moving it. What these golfers told us was that 23% of golfers would likely move a ball with their club while only 14% and 10% would move it by kicking it and picking it up, respectively. What this tells us is that the extra distance provided by the club allows for twice as much cheating as the unavoidably conscious and culpable act of picking up the ball and moving it.
What does this have to do with cheating in online courses? Online classes are by definition taken at a distance, from the comfort of the student’s home where they are removed from the teacher, the other students, and the academic institution. This distance doesn’t merely allow room for people to get away with dishonest behavior; it creates the psychological distance that allows people to further relax their moral standards. I suspect that this aspect of psychological distance, and not simply the ease of pulling it off, is at the heart of the online cheating problem.
There is another important reason why we should care whether the cause for online dishonesty is due to its ease or to a change in the perceived moral meaning of the action. If online cheating is simply a matter of a cost-benefit analysis, we can assume that over time online universities will find ways to monitor and supervise students and this way prevent such behavior. However, if we think that the root cause of online cheating is more relaxed internal morals, then time is working against us.
Let’s think for a minute about illegal downloads. Have you ever downloaded a song or TV show illegally? How badly do you feel about it? When I ask my students these questions, almost all of them admit to having plenty of illegally downloaded files on their computers—and they don’t feel badly about it. As it turns out, dishonesty lies on a continuum: there are behaviors we feel badly about, which is where our own morality holds us back. But as cheating in a particular domain becomes more commonplace, the negative feelings associated with it decrease until we don’t really feel badly at all.
Let’s return to Bob and to cheating in online courses. This kind of behavior in online classes worries me because it is becoming more pervasive, and once we reach a point of moral indifference, it is nearly impossible to change this behavior. I don’t think we’ve reached this point yet, so we need to work as hard as we can to counteract the trend toward dishonesty. Otherwise what’s often considered an important tool for democracy in education could be made worthless.
We lie. We cheat. We bend the rules. We break the rules. And sometimes, as we’ve seen in Greece, it all adds up. But, remarkably, this doesn’t stop us from thinking we’re wonderful, honest people. We’ve become very good at justifying our dishonest behaviors so that, at the end of the day, we feel good about who we are. This tendency is only getting worse, and, as innocent as it may seem, the consequences are becoming more apparent and more serious.
Cheating has less to do with personal gain than it does self-perception. We need to believe that we’re good people, and we’ll do just about anything to maintain that perception. Sometimes, this means behaving in ways that align with our sense of what is right. Other times, it means crossing that line, but turning a blind eye to our behavior, or rationalizing it in some way that allows us to believe it’s OK.
Let’s say your friend, who is not looking their best, asks you how they look, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings, so you lie. You fudge it. You don’t necessarily say, “Wow! You’ve never looked better,” but you don’t tell them the full truth. And you have no problem rationalizing your fib: It’s the right thing to do, because you would never want to hurt your friend’s feelings. Perhaps you used more neutral complimentary terms, or didn’t look them in the eye at that particular moment. These sorts of details would make it easier to justify your well-intentioned lie, and help you sleep at night without giving it a second thought.
The same kind of self-deception applies to wider-scale cheating, although the motivations are usually different. In more professional scenarios, our dishonesty is typically fueled by the desire for wealth or status rather than concern for the reputation of others. Greed is a powerful motivator.
About two months ago, American businessman Garrett Bauer was sentenced to nine years in prison for insider trading. Garrett was one of the people I had spoken to in researching the nature of dishonesty, and to see the consequences of his actions catch up to him that way was a brutal reminder of just how out-of-hand cheating can get. Garrett traded stocks on insider information for about 17 years. He started off small, as people tend to do, and never considered that he might get caught. As time went by, it got easier and easier for him to cheat the system free of guilt. But then he got caught, and now it’s too late to correct his mistakes.
That night, after his sentencing, I couldn’t sleep. I curled into the fetal position – the world looked terrible to me. I had spent the day before in New York giving talk after talk about cheating and dishonesty, how widespread they are, and how little appetite we have to start changing things. With all that cheating weighing on my mind, Garrett’s sentence was an additional terrible blow. It was overwhelmingly sad, and a very painful night.
The consequences of this sort of cheating are even more severe when the network of contagion is larger. We see this when we look at Greece, where masses of people have been cheating a little bit everywhere, and it’s added up. What this shows is just how contagious dishonesty can be. When we see somebody else cheat, especially if they’re part of our own, internal group, all of a sudden we figure out that it’s more acceptable to act this way. It’s not that the probability of our getting caught has changed – it’s that we’ve changed our mindset, convincing ourselves that the act itself is actually OK. At some point, you just think, “This is the way things are done,” and you go with the flow.
One woman from Greece recently told me that she was selling her apartment and she was considering whether to sell it legally (and pay taxes) or illegally (without paying taxes). She quickly recalled that she had bought it illegally, and that she was going to lose money if she would turn around and sell it legally – not to mention that in her mind she would be the only person in Greece paying taxes on real-estate property.
When everyone around you is cheating the system, what’s your motivation to be the one not playing along? And why change now? Why not make changes next month, or next year, instead?
This mentality is accentuated in Greece because it’s not just the everyday citizens who have been cheating – the government has been fudging the books. When cheating is that entrenched in a country, what can you do to stop it? It’s incredibly naïve to think that it will stop on its own. What Greece needs is something like the Reconciliation Act that South Africa adopted, focusing not on the travesties it has done to its people, but on starting fresh.
Every day, people are finding new and more creative ways to cheat, and to justify their dishonest behavior, regardless of the negative impact their actions might have on others. What’s most worrying about this trend is that we still fail to grasp the extent of our dishonesty. But it doesn’t have to be like this. If, on a global scale, we worked to understand the root of our dishonesty, and motivated each other to overcome it, we could do much better.
When a certain former New York State Attorney General became New York Governor, he pledged to “change the ethics of Albany” and make “ethics and integrity the hallmarks of [his] administration.” Sure enough, he went on to fight collar crime and corruption, reduce pollution and prosecute a couple prostitution rings. Oh, but then the New York Times disclosed that this same law-and-order Governor was patronizing high-priced prostitutes. So much for changing the ethics of Albany.
Power and moral hypocrisy are not strangers – it’s one of the oldest stories around (generally going under the name of hubris), and we see it all the time. But why?
A few social scientists decided to take a stab at finding an answer. Joris Lammers and Diederik A. Stapel (from Tilburg University) and Adam D. Galinsky (from Northwestern University) ran five experiments addressing how morality differs among the powerless and powerful.
They simulated a bureaucratic organization and randomly assigned participants to be in a high-power role (prime-minister) or low-power role (civil servant). The prime-minister could control and direct the civil servants. Next, the researchers presented all participants with a seemingly unrelated moral dilemma from among the following: failure to declare all wages on a tax form, violation of traffic rules, and possession of a stolen bike. In each case, participants used a 9-point scale (1: completely unacceptable, 9: fully acceptable) to rate the acceptability of the act. However, half of the participants rated how acceptable it would be if they themselves engaged in the act, while the other half rated how acceptable it would be if others engaged in it.
The researchers found that compared to participants without power, powerful participants were stricter in judging others’ moral transgressions but more lenient in judging their own: “power increases hypocrisy, meaning that the powerful show a greater discrepancy between what they practice and what they preach.”
Joris and Adam hypothesized that this power-hypocrisy connection was due to the sense of entitlement that comes with positions of power. But what if you took away that entitlement by having participants view their power as illegitimate? In that case, the researchers posited, you would see the power-hypocrisy effect disappear.
To test their idea, they had 105 Dutch students write about an experience in which they were powerful or powerless. But half of the participants were asked to write about a time when they deserved their high or low power (it was legitimate), while the other half were asked to write about a time when they didn’t deserve their high or low power. They then had to rate the acceptability of the bike dilemma from above.
Results: when power (or lack thereof) was legitimate, the powerful also exhibited moral hypocrisy (being less moral themselves but judging others more harshly), while the powerless weren’t – just as before. But when power (or lack thereof) was illegitimate, the powerful didn’t show hypocrisy. In fact, the moral hypocrisy effect not only disappeared but was reversed, with the illegitimately powerful becoming stricter in judging their own behavior and more lenient in judging the others.