Wondering whether you can ask someone to give you a PhD in exchange for a kickback? Curious whether you can get away with stuffing ballot boxes? Allow me to introduce you to the Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure. Every couple years the Department of Defense publishes the Encyclopedia (Word doc), which is likely the most sarcastic government document out there. Interestingly, golf and taxes seem to turn up a lot.
Of course, ethics for U.S. government employees and military includes a number of rules that most citizens don’t have to abide by, such as not endorsing candidates for office while in uniform. However, it doesn’t take a law degree to recognize the problems with many of these incidents. Here’s a tiny sample:
– “For a period of several years, two top executives at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center had an astonishing work record—they took nearly no vacation time at all. The reason, investigators soon discovered, was that the executives had been taking “religious compensatory time” instead. Curiously, the executives’ absences seldom fell on any traditionally observed religious holidays. Instead, investigators found that the pair’s so-called religious observances took place on days when they had medical appointments, sightseeing trips, and golf tournaments. Asked whether golf tournaments could be considered religious observances, one executive replied, “They could be for some people.”
– A Forest Service employee decided that while she was fulfilling payments for the Service using government checks, she would write a couple to her boyfriend, who had contracted with the Forest Service once upon a time. The checks she wrote under the guise of payment for firefighting services totaled over $600,000, and apparently went to pay for general expenses and, fittingly, for gambling.
– And in the quintessential story of government corruption, two VA employees are in jail for accepting more than $100,000 in kickbacks for red tape. Yes, actual red-colored tape.
The Encyclopedia shows not only that cheating (in all its myriad forms) is wrong, but also that it carries substantial repercussions; the size of the document serves as an indication that getting caught is fairly probable. The question I have is whether over time readers of the Encyclopedia will remember the instances as examples of what people do, forget where these examples came from, and perhaps start thinking of them more as clever and daring schemes than cautionary tales….
Arming the Donkeys this week features Nina Mazar, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto. Nina and I speak about her research on psychological licensing, or how we may be more likely to cheat after doing something good.
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.
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.
Sometimes as I decide what kind of papers to assign to my students, I can’t help but think about their potential to use essay mills.
Essay mills are companies whose sole purpose is to generate essays for high school and college students (in exchange for a fee, of course). Sure, essay mills claim that the papers are meant just to help the students write their own original papers, but with names such as echeat.com, it’s pretty clear what their real purpose is.
Professors in general are very worried about essay mills and their impact on learning, but not knowing exactly what essay mills are or the quality of their output, it is hard to know how worried we should be. So together with Aline Grüneisen, I decided to check it out. We ordered a typical college term paper from four different essay mills, and as the topic of the paper we chose… (surprise!) Cheating.
Here is the description of the task that we gave the four essay mills:
“When and why do people cheat? Consider the social circumstances involved in dishonesty, and provide a thoughtful response to the topic of cheating. Address various forms of cheating (personal, at work, etc.) and how each of these can be rationalized by a social culture of cheating.”
We requested a term paper for a university level social psychology class, 12 pages long, using 15 sources (cited and referenced in a bibliography), APA style, to be completed in the next 2 weeks, which we felt was a pretty basic and conventional request. The essay mills charged us in advance, between $150 to $216 per paper.
Two weeks later, what we received what would best be described as gibberish. A few of the papers attempt to mimic APA style, but none achieve it without glaring errors. Citations were sloppy, and the reference lists abominable – including outdated and unknown sources, many of which were online news stories, editorial posts or blogs, and some that were simply broken links. In terms of the quality of the writing itself, the authors of all four papers seemed to have a very tenuous grasp of the English language, or even how to format an essay. Paragraphs jumped bluntly from one topic to another, and often fell into the form of a list, counting off various forms of cheating or providing a long stream of examples that were never explained or connected to the “thesis” of the paper. Here are some excerpts from the four papers:
“Cheating by healers. Healing is different. There is harmless healing, when healers-cheaters and wizards offer omens, lapels, damage to withdraw, the husband-wife back and stuff. We read in the newspaper and just smile. But these days fewer people believe in wizards.”
“If the large allowance of study undertook on scholar betraying is any suggestion of academia and professors’ powerful yearn to decrease scholar betraying, it appeared expected these mind-set would component into the creation of their school room guidelines.”
“By trusting blindfold only in stable love, loyalty, responsibility and honesty the partners assimilate with the credulous and naïve persons of the past.“
“Women have a much greater necessity to feel special.”
“The future generation must learn for historical mistakes and develop the sense of pride and responsibility for its actions.”
At this point we were rather relieved, figuring that the day is not here where students can submit papers from essay mills and get good grades for them. Moreover, we concluded that if students did try to buy a paper from an essay mill, just like us, they would feel that they have wasted their money and won’t try it again.
But the story does not end here. We submitted the four essays to WriteCheck.com, a website that inspects papers for plagiarism and found that two of the papers were 35-39% copied from existing works. We decided to take action with the two largely plagiarized papers, and contacted the essay mills requesting our money back. Despite the solid proof that we provided, the companies insisted that they did not plagiarize. One company even tried to threaten us by saying that they will get in touch with the dean at Duke to alert them to the fact that we submitted work that is not ours (just imagine being a student who had used the paper for a class!).
The bottom line? I think that the technological revolution has not yet solved students’ problems. They still have no other option but to actually work on their papers (or maybe cheat the old fashioned way and copy from friends). But I do worry about the existence of essay mills and the signal that they send to our students. As for our refund, we are still waiting…
In recent years there seems to have been a surge in academic dishonesty in high schools. No doubt this can be explained in part by 1) increased vigilance and reporting, 2) greater pressure on students to succeed, and 3) the communicable nature of dishonest behavior (when people see others do something, whether it’s enhancement of a resume or parking illegally, they’re more likely to do the same). But, I also think that a fourth, and significant, cause in this worrisome trend has to do with the way we measure and reward teachers.
To think about the effects of these measurements, let’s first think about corporate America, where measurement of performance has a much longer history. Recently I met with one of the CEOs I most respect, and he told me a story about when he himself mismanaged the incentives for his employees, by over-measurement. A few years earlier he had tried to create a specific performance evaluation matrix for each of his top employees, and he asked them to focus on optimizing that particular measure; for some it was selection of algorithms, for others it was return on investment for advertising, and so on. He also changed their compensation structure so that 10 percent of their bonus depended on their performance relative to that measure.
What he quickly found was that his top employees did not focus 10 percent of their time and efforts on maximizing that measure, they gave almost all of their attention to it. This was not such good news, because they began to do anything that would improve their performance on that measure even by a tiny bit—even if they caused problems with other employees’ work in the process. Ultimately they were consumed with maximizing what they knew they would be measured on, regardless of the fact that this was only part of their overall responsibility. This kind of behavior falls in line with the phrase “you are what you measure,” which is the idea that once we measure something, we make it salient and motivational. In these situations people start over-focusing on the measurable thing and neglect other aspects of their job or life.
So how does this story of mis-measurements in corporate America relate to teaching? I suspect that any teachers reading this see the parallels. The mission of teaching, and its evaluation, is incredibly intricate and complex. In addition to being able to read, write, and do some math and science, we want students to be knowledgeable, broad-minded, creative, lifelong learners, etc etc etc. On top of that, we can all readily agree that education is a long-term process that sometimes takes many years to come to fruition. With all of the complexity and difficulty of figuring out what makes good teaching, it is also incredibly difficult to accurately and comprehensively evaluate how well teachers are doing.
Now, imagine that in this very complex system we introduce a measurement of just one, relatively simple, criteria: the success of their students on standardized tests. And say, on top of that, we make this particular measurement the focal point of evaluation and compensation. Under such conditions we should expect teachers to over-emphasize the activity that is being measured and neglect other aspects of teaching, and we have evidence from the No Child Left Behind program that this has been the case. For example, we find that teachers teach to the test, which improves the results for that test but allows other areas of education and instruction (that is, those areas not represented on the tests) to fall by the wayside.
And how is this related to dishonesty in the school system? I don’t think that teachers are cheating this way (by themselves changing answers, or by allowing students to cheat) simply to increase their salaries. After all, if they were truly performing a cost-benefit analysis, they would probably choose another profession—one where the returns for cheating were much higher. But having this single measure for performance placed so saliently in front of them, and knowing it’s just as important for their school and their students as it is for their own reputation and career, most likely motivates some teachers to look the other way when they have a chance to artificially improve those numbers.
So what do we do? The notion that we take something as broad as education and reduce it to a simple measurement, and then base teacher pay primarily on it, has a lot of negative consequences. And, sadly, I suspect that fudging test scores is relatively minor compared with the damage that this emphasis on tests scores has had on the educational system as a whole.
Interestingly, the outrage over teachers cheating seems to be much greater than the outrage over the damage of mis-measurement in the educational system and over the No Child Left Behind Act more generally. So maybe there is some good news in all of this: Perhaps we now have a reason to rethink our reliance on these inaccurate and distracting measurements, and stop paying teachers for their students’ performance. Maybe it is time to think more carefully about how we want to educate in the first place, and stop worrying so much about tests.
(This post also appeared as part of a leadership roundtable on the right way to approach teacher incentives in the Washington Post. The Washington Post will post more opinions about this topic here. )
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 <email@example.com>
Subject: Ariely Final Exam Answers
Thought you might find this useful. See link below.
——————————————-From: Ira Onal<firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Richard Zhang < >
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
email@example.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?
Duke University ’12
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?
We once ran a study on cheating where we asked students to try to recall the Ten Commandments before an exam, and found that this moral reminder deterred them from cheating. Well, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University recently made practical use of the study – but in an extreme way.
Fed up with the low ethical standards among his MBA students, Professor Michael Tang passed out an honor pledge that not only listed the Ten Commandments, but also included a concluding flourish indicating that those who cheated would “be sorry for the rest of [their] life and go to Hell.” In response, several students called the department chair to complain and a good deal of controversy ensued.
But what the news coverage didn’t address (perhaps because no one at the school had) were the merits of this extreme pledge. Might this be an effective way of curbing dishonesty? I think yes, very much so. I also suspect that even those who don’t believe in God would take this pledge seriously.
Still, though I don’t doubt its effectiveness, the question remains whether we want to invoke such stringent punishments (stringent for those who believe, that is) on an MBA exam. Judging from the reactions in this case, I’m guessing that for most people, the answer is “no.” But it also makes me wonder about the people who didn’t want to sign this pledge….
At one point the people who run Hudson Urban Bikes, a bike rental company in the West Village, wondered what would happen to a bike if it was left chained to a post in the city for one year, and they took a picture of it each day to document its progress. The bicycle began its experimental journey equipped with all necessary equipment plus a basket, water bottle, splashguard and a few other goodies.
For quite a while the bike sits quietly chained next to a host of other bikes, retaining all of its accouterment. Then, on day 160 all of a sudden the water bottle goes missing. Then a few weeks later on day 212, both the lock and the basket walk off. From there things really begin to deteriorate, and it’s not long before the seat is missing, followed soon after by the front tire, splashguard, and handle bars.
Finally the forlorn frame itself disappears.
To my mind, this experiment cleverly mimics several aspects of dishonesty. People are basically fairly honest most of the time, but at some point they are tempted to cheat or take one small thing, or they see someone else do so. Over time this works through them, and maybe they take another small thing. After a while, this becomes habit, and people begin cheating at full throttle, and next thing you know, the whole bicycle is missing (figuratively).
That said, I think it bodes well that the bike lasted as long as it did, particularly after the lock was removed. It seems we can rest a little easier knowing that people, for the most part, don’t cheat as much as they could, or as much as we would expect them too, rationally speaking—after all, just think of how many people walked by the apparently free, unlocked bike and ignored it.