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An E-Mail Experiment Helps a Duke Economist Ponder His Students’ Cheating Hearts

As the fall semester approaches, a word of advice to students: If you’re absolutely determined to cheat,  do it in a course taught by a professor who’s obsessed with cheating. Your behavior will depress him, but he’ll at least have the consolation of a deeper understanding of the problem.

Last spring, Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, and his teaching assistants found evidence of cheating in the weekly quizzes in his 500-student lecture course.

“People who were sitting together had similar answers,” Mr. Ariely said in an e-mail message to The Chronicle. “The class was very large, and it was hard to space people more, which I would have done if I had space.”

What happened next was described in a post on Mr. Ariely’s blog on Wednesday. After the class discussed cheating and honor codes—topics with which Mr. Ariely has been concerned for many years—two students in the course decided to run a little experiment. (Their project was an outgrowth of one of the class assignments.)

They sent all 498 of their classmates e-mail messages from a fictitious student explaining how to download Mr. Ariely’s final-exam questions and answers from the previous year. Half the messages included this postscript: “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.’”

Among students who were reminded of the honor code, 41 percent clicked on the link (which did not actually contain any test material). But among students who were not reminded of the honor code, a much higher proportion—69 percent—clicked on the link.

The day after the actual final exam, Mr. Ariely conducted an anonymous survey, asking students whether they had cheated, and also for their estimates of how many of their fellow students had done so.

Very few students admitted to cheating—and Mr. Ariely believes their self-reports are basically accurate. If there had been much cheating on the final, he writes, the grades would have been better. (The average grade was 70.)

But Mr. Ariely does not take much comfort from that, because the students estimated that 30 to 45 percent of their fellow students had cheated. Those estimates are probably much higher than the reality, but Mr. Ariely argues that “such an overestimation of the real amount of cheating can become an incredibly damaging social norm. …  If the perception of cheating is that it runs rampant, what are the chances that next year’s students will not adopt even more lenient moral standards and live up to the perception of cheating among their peers?”

Mr. Ariely talked about cheating two weeks ago on public radio, and his work was also profiled in The Chronicle back in June.

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