“When You Cheat You Only Hurt Yourself”

Keep Your Cool ImageAlthough, generally cast in moral terms, academic cheating can be explained by examining practicality and circumstance, rather than attributing to simply a character weakness. Understanding when people cheat can help show the complexity of why people cheat.

In 2012, 125 Harvard undergraduates were investigated for sharing answers on a take home final exam, and approximately 70 students were mandated to temporarily withdraw from the university, after being found guilty of cheating.  None of them were expelled.  As quoted in the January 2014 Atlantic Monthly:

The take-home final exam for Harvard University’s 2012 Introduction to Congress course was open-book, open-note, and open-Internet. The only source students weren’t allowed to consult was other people.

But consult they did, and within a few months the university was investigating nearly half the class for plagiarizing or improperly collaborating.

Ironically, the open access to information may have led students to cheat.    

Maybe because technology makes it so easy: access to copy/paste tools is associated with a higher rate of cheating [6].

Yet, these kids are seemingly the high achievers – the chosen few to attend Harvard – why jeopardize that opportunity for one exam?  Ironically, the expectation to continue achieving can be one reason why students cheat.

A 2009 survey … found that 51 percent of teens age 17 or younger believed that cheating was necessary for success, while only 10 percent of people older than 50 thought the same [1].

The Atlantic Monthly article also hypothesizes other circumstances that are conducive to cheating:

Or maybe we’re just tired. A 2009 study found that when participants were made to write an essay without using the letters A or N, an exercise intended to wear out their self-control, they were more likely to cheat on a later task [7]

The theory that today’s students may run out of energy and time, which motivates them to cheat, is a plausible argument. The amount of homework in one high school Advanced Placement, Honors and International Baccalaureate class can consume several hours a night – now, multiply the typical high school class schedule by six AND add two hours of daily extracurricular activities afterschool, PLUS additional days/hours spent on weekends for these same activities.  The copying of a homework assignment from a friend can be a needed reprieve, especially when teachers only scan the papers to ensure a kid has done the work, not necessarily to give feedback for further understanding.

When a student cheats, the circumstances leading to the offense may be more extensive than the act itself, and require more investigation to deter future cheating, rather than a slap on the wrist. As an added benefit, the “cheater” may also gain greater confidence by taking responsibility and not simply scolding themselves for being immoral.


The Studies:

[1] Josephson Institute of Ethics, “A Study of Values and Behavior Concerning Integrity: The Impact of Age, Cynicism and High School Character” (Oct. 2009)

[6] Roberts and Wasieleski, “Moral Reasoning in Computer-Based Task Environments: Exploring the Interplay Between Cognitive and Technological Factors on Individuals’ Propensity to Break Rules” (Journal of Business Ethics, Oct. 2012)

[7] Mead et al., “Too Tired to Tell the Truth: Self-Control Resource Depletion and Dishonesty” (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2009)