Cheating Lessons, Part 1

Instead of focusing on common characteristics of cheaters, can we reduce the problem by modifying our classroom practices?

Brian Taylor

May 28, 2013

In the spring of 2012, the Duke economist and behavioral theorist Dan Ariely published a trade book entitled The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, a fascinating account of multiple experiments in which he and a series of colleagues tested the willingness of people to cheat in a variety of situations.

To make their experiments work, Ariely and his colleagues had to figure out how to create environments that would allow or even induce people to cheat. The researchers did that in manifold and ingenious ways. Typically they first designed a task to discern a base level of dishonesty in an average sample of adult humans (the control condition). Then they modified that task in various ways (the experimental conditions) to see whether those changes would induce or reduce the amount of cheating.

So, for example, they offered people small sums of money in return for solving mathematical problems; the amount of money increased with the number of problems solved correctly. In the control condition, the subjects would simply return their tests and receive the money from one of the researchers. In one of the experimental conditions, by contrast, the subjects might be asked to score their own tests, shred their response sheets, and then report verbally to the researcher how many problems they had answered correctly. As you might expect, the number of "correct" problems reported by the test-takers increased in that experiment.

Ariely draws an important conclusion from the experiments: Under the right conditions, most people are willing to cheat a little bit. He calls that the "fudge factor," and uses it to explain a wide variety of lab experiments as well as real-world situations in which unethical behavior seemed to spiral out of control—such as the 2008 collapse of financial markets in the wake of countless unethical moves made by investment bankers, auditors, lawyers, and more.

Although many of the subjects in his experiments were college students, Ariely does not focus extensively on the problem of cheating in academe. But I think his work has significant implications for us.

Much of the recent research and advice on cheating in higher education focuses on the learner, and on how we can better police students or modify their behavior. A vast array of published surveys, for example, have sought to identify the demographics of cheating students. Do men cheat more than women? Do fraternity members cheat more than athletes? Do older students cheat more than younger students? Researchers have also sought to identify the types of institutions and courses that seem to be plagued by higher rates of cheating. Do Ivy League students cheat more than community-college students? How about students in online courses versus traditional ones?

Demographic or institutional research can certainly help give colleges and instructors better information on determining the kinds of classes in which we should more closely observe students for academic-integrity violations. For example, since students typically cheat more in large courses than in small ones, we should be more vigilant in proctoring exams in large courses. Those studies may also help us determine where to focus our energies when we design an academic-integrity campaign. If students are cheating more in online courses, then we need more robust efforts to educate online instructors on detecting it.

But the research conducted by Dan Ariely and his colleagues suggests a different approach to combating cheating in higher education: Instead of focusing our attention on the gender of cheaters, their membership in a fraternity, or any number of other factors of personality or situation that might dispose them to cheat, we should instead modify the environment in which they are completing the task. As Ariely puts it, in reference to the dishonesty that takes place in everyday life, the amount of cheating in which human beings are willing to engage "depends on the structure of our daily environment."

Likewise, as I will argue in this three-part series on academic dishonesty in higher education, the amount of cheating that takes place on our campuses may well depend on the structures of the learning environment. The curriculum requirements, the course design, the daily classroom practices, the nature and administration of assignments and exams, and the students' relationship with the instructor—all of those can be modified in order to reduce (or induce, if we so wanted) cheating.

I would never argue that we can foolproof our courses and classrooms against cheating, or that faculty members bear full responsibility for cheating in their courses. But I will argue that we have the power to make a difference. In fact, focusing on the learning environment will not only provide an important and potentially effective tool to reduce cheating in our classrooms, it can also create a sense of empowerment in faculty members, who might feel uncertain about their ability to cultivate virtue in students or to police cheating more vigilantly.

To provide another example of how environmental features can reduce or induce the incentive to cheat, consider the unique and fascinating "Princess Alice" experiment conducted by a trio of researchers in Britain a few years back. Working with children aged 5 to 9, the researchers videotaped their subjects attempting to complete a complex "rule-following" task. Standing in a small room, the children had to throw a Velcro ball at a target that was six feet away, using their nondominant hand, and facing in the opposite direction from the target. Successfully sticking a ball onto the target—almost impossible for anyone, let alone a child—would win them a small toy or prize.

The researchers first divided the children into three groups. The first group made their throws in the presence of a female observer, who sat quietly in a chair and was instructed by the research team to smile and look friendly, but not offer any help or advice. The second group attempted the task unsupervised, with no adult in the room. The third group was told that an invisible person named Princess Alice would be sitting in the room with them.

The children in the Princess Alice group were questioned—both before and after the experiment—about whether or not they believed she was really there. Some children believed in her presence, and some did not. That allowed the researchers to divide the children into a total of four experimental groups: those in the presence of an adult; those who either believed in the presence of Princess Alice or were uncertain about her existence; those who expressed skepticism or disbelief in her presence; and those who completed the task without either an adult or Princess Alice sitting in the room.

The researchers were interested in whether or not the presence of Princess Alice—or, perhaps more accurately, the belief in her presence—would inhibit the children's willingness to cheat. You can imagine easily enough that a 5-year-old child, alone in an empty room, might be tempted to step a few feet over the line or turn and face the target if it will help him win the toy he has been promised. Would the "presence" of an invisible observer discourage such cheating? (Don't feel badly for the children who played by the rules and didn't hit the target, by the way. After a set period of time, one of the researchers came into the room, simplified the rules of the game, and allowed the children to throw until they hit the target and won a prize.)

What the researchers found, unsurprisingly, was that the rates of cheating were lower for those who attempted the task in the presence of an adult, and higher for those children who were left alone in the room or who were told of Princess Alice's presence but didn't believe in her.

But the most interesting result was for the group of children who either believed in Princess Alice or were uncertain about her. Their rate of cheating was roughly equal to that of children who completed the task in the presence of an adult. Only one of the 11 children who believed or were uncertain about Princess Alice engaged in what the authors call a "full cheating response" (i.e., walking up and placing a ball directly on the target). By stark contrast, five of the seven children who didn't believe in her presence were full cheaters.

The researchers were obviously interested in exploring how the presence of a watchful supernatural agent would influence children's willingness to cheat. But I take away quite another lesson from the experiment: These researchers knew, just like Dan Ariely and his team, how to design a learning and performance environment that induced people to cheat.

If we look carefully at the laboratory conditions created by both Ariely and by the Princess Alice experiments, in fact, we can see a handful of cheating-inducing conditions common to both environments. Most striking: All of these common conditions are ones that, in modified formats, can also appear in our classrooms and laboratories on college campuses. These are conditions that, in spite of our best efforts to promote academic integrity in our students and police our exams and assignments, nudge them toward more cheating and less learning.

In the next two columns in this series, I will consider some of these common conditions, and the possible remedies.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the college honors program at Assumption College. His new book, "Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty," will be published by Harvard University Press later this year. His Web site is