Classroom Ethics 101

July 3, 2012 BY danariely

On the first day of one of my classes, I asked my undergraduate students whether they had enough self-control to avoid using their computers during class for non-class-related activities. They promised that if they used their laptops, it would only be for course-related activities like taking notes. However, as the semester drew on, I noticed more and more students checking Facebook, surfing the web, and emailing. And I noticed that as these behaviors increased, so did their cheating on weekly quizzes. In a class of 500 students, it was difficult to manage this deterioration. As my students’ attention and respect continued to degrade, I became increasingly frustrated.

Finally, we got to the point in the semester where we covered my research on dishonesty and cheating. After discussing the importance of ethical standards and honor code reminders, two of my students took it upon themselves to run something of an experiment on the rest of the students. They sent an email to everyone in the class from a fabricated (but conceivably real) classmate, and included a link to a website that was supposed to contain the answers to a past year’s final exam. Half the students received this email:

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: Richard Zhang ‪<richardzhang44@gmail.com>

Subject: Ariely Final Exam Answers


Hey guys,

Thought you might find this useful. See link below.

——————————————-From: Ira Onal<ira.onal@gmail.com>

To: Richard Zhang < >

Subject: Re:Hello!

Hey Richard,

Good to hear from you again. Yes, I was the TA for Ariely’s class. Here’s a link with the answers from the test when I was TA, and I don’t think he changes the questions/answers every semester. Hope this is helpful and let me know if you have any questions:


Best of luck,


Ira T. Onal

Duke University Trinity School ’09

ira.onal@gmail.com | (410) 627-0299

Richard Zhang < > wrote:

> Hey Ira,

> I hope all is going well. I’m in Ariely’s class and saw your name on the syllabus – are you/were you the TA? I also heard there is an exam in the class, and was wondering if you had any guidance/tips for it. He just has a bunch of short quizzes this year, so should I use those to study from?



Richard Zhang

Duke University ’12

(315) 477-1603


The other half got the same email but also included the following message:

~ ~ ~

P.S. I don’t know if this is cheating or not, but here’s a section of the University’s Honor Code that might be pertinent. Use your own judgment:

“Obtaining documents that grant an unfair advantage to an individual is not allowed.”

~ ~ ~


Using Google Analytics, the students tracked how many people from each group visited the website. The disparaging news is that without the honor code reminder, about 69% of the class accessed the website with the answers. However, when the message included the reminder about the honor code, 41% accessed the website. As it turns out, students who were reminded of the honor code were significantly less likely to cheat. Now, 41% is still a lot, but it is much less than 69%.

The presence of the honor code, as well as the ambiguity of the moral norm, may have had a role in the students’ behavior. When the question of morality becomes salient, students are forced to decide whether they consider their behavior to be cheating – and presumably most of them decided that it is.

Moreover, a qualitative look at the email responses from students (to the fictitious student who sent them the link to the test answers) showed that while those who did not see the code were generally thankful, those given the honor code were often upset and offended.


The issue of cheating arose again with the approach of finals. I received several emails from students who were concerned about their classmates cheating, so I decided to look into the situation with a post-exam survey. The day after the exam, I asked all the students to report (anonymously) their own cheating and the cheating they suspected of their peers.

The results showed that while the students estimated that ~30-45% of their peers had cheated on the final exam, very few of them admitted that they themselves had cheated.  Now, you might be thinking that we should take these self-reports with a grain of salt – after all, even on an anonymous survey, students will most likely underreport their own cheating. But we can also look at the grades on the exam, and because less than 1% of students got a 90% or better (and the average got 70% correct), I am relatively confident that the students’ perception of cheating was much more exaggerated than the actual level (or they could just be very bad at cheating).

While it may seem like good news that fewer of their peers cheat than they suspect, in fact such an overestimation of the real amount of cheating can become an incredibly damaging social norm.  The trouble with this kind of inflated perception is that when students think that all of their peers are cheating, they feel that it is socially acceptable to cheat and feel pressured to cheat in order to keep up. In fact, a few students have come to my office complaining that they were penalized because they decided not to cheat — and what was amazing to me was that in being honest, they truly felt that there was some injustice done to them.

The bottom line is that if people perceive that cheating is running rampant, what are the chances that next year’s students will adopt even more lenient moral standards and live up to the perception of cheating among their peers?