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Perspectives - Vol. 3, No. 2 - Being Human

Paul C. Bernhardt, M.S.: Sun, Mar 1st 1998

It seems to me that cheating has become a big issue in our society. From the alleged falsification of data by breast cancer researchers to plagiarism via the use of papers proffered over the internet, cheating seems omnipresent. Our parents usually told us that the only person hurt by cheating was ourselves.

Strange advice if analyzed closely. It could be argued that since it only hurts ourselves maybe we have the right to determine how much we are willing to be hurt and thereby justifying cheating. I think they were talking about injury in a larger view of our life. That is, by cheating we fail to gain the real satisfaction and practical value out of the event wherein cheating was used. Yes, that must be it. Unfortunately, I find reason to believe that we've discovered things in psychology that would tend to belie that view, that people don't care much about cheating and that they discount what they lose.

The idea for this column came about due to a recent incident in a class I was taking. During one of our weekly quizzes I was surprised to notice a neighboring student was thumbing through her notes looking for answers to the questions. I was frankly annoyed. I'd done my studying, and while I knew my answers were not perfect, I didn't feel a need to cheat in order to get an adequate grade.

The vast majority of us have known at one time or another that someone else has cheated on a test or in an academic situation. In that situation we have a moral dilemmas. Do we bust the miscreant, turn to cheating in order to compete, or simply accept that some folks will do anything for a grade and feel self-assured that good comes to those who are honest?

I discussed this and other incidents that I'd noted in both my roles as teacher and student over the past few years with a friend. He noted that while he was attending a community college about 15 years ago cheating was "as common as green grass." The preferred method for his particular area of study (Computer Sciences) was to gain access to the exams prior to administration. He decided that the only way to compete was to fall in line with the rest of the class. Needless to say, he did very well on the exams. He did so well that during an in-class discussion on a particularly difficult algorithm he was called on to offer an answer for the class. He tossed out a long-winded nonsensical answer. The teacher accepted the answer at face value because of my friend's long standing excellent performance on tests. Obviously cheating had paid off in an unusual way for my buddy.

I asked him how he felt about it, did it bother him that he'd cheated. He was surprised by my question, said, "No, it was necessary to compete with the other students in the class." It was a simple rationalization that the ends justified the means. Indeed, he didn't even really consider it cheating. The reason he didn't was because the professor was so stupid to use the same tests each term making it trivial to prepare for the test by acquiring it. He thought of it as targeted preparation. In a way I understand his rationalization. While the teacher took the precaution of collecting the tests after reviewing them after grading, he didn't control the testing situations adequately so that students were able to leave to make copies.

Now my friend is a software engineer. While it is important that he know what he is doing, he has the luxury of regularly referring to desktop sources as may be needed in his day to day work. His job does not regularly require immediate access to complex detailed information. The skill is in how to go about solving the software problem and efficient use of resources, not in rote recall. But what about the physician, or airline pilot? While most of what they do is routine, occasionally they will be called on to perform in split seconds with no time to grab a manual off the shelf in order to save lives. If they skipped that section of the book, got by via cheating, lives could be lost.

One study (Baldwin, Daugherty, Rowley, & Schwarz, 1996) found 39% of medical students had witnessed cheating while 66% had heard about cheating. Less than 5% admitted to having cheated, and men were more likely to admit to cheating than women. Finally, they found the best predictor of admitting to cheating in medical school was admitting to having cheated previously in their academic careers (high school or college).

Doubtless people under-reported their cheating, meaning that somewhat more than 5% of medical students in that sample had cheated. Doubtless also, unique incidents of cheating were talked about amongst students, the word spreading widely, such that the 66% who have heard of cheating is needlessly sobering. To me, the 39% witnessing figure is the sobering one. I figure few cheating incidents are witnessed by more than one person, meaning this figure might give a reasonable order-of-magnitude, probably an under-estimate, of the cheating in medical school. With that figure in mind, it is clear that cheating is prevalent on college campuses, even in the professional schools.

An important aspect of these studies may be that each person as a different tolerance of cheating. Roig and Ballew (1994) found that business majors had the most tolerant attitudes towards cheating. Students were fairly accurate in estimating how faculty typically felt about cheating, but faculty tended to believe that students were more tolerant about cheating than students' self-reports indicated.

One of the more interesting findings of Roig and Ballew was that more tolerant students tended to project a more tolerant attitude about cheating when estimating faculty tolerance. This sounds like an example of the false consensus effect. Our intrinsic egocentrism leads us to overestimate that other persons have similar attitudes towards other events and objects as we do. Hansen and Donoghue (1977) found that people were most likely to make the false consensus estimation of others' behaviors when they had themselves engaged in the behavior,which was drinking foul tasting milk. Persons who simply observed the milk drinker, but did not actually drink it themselves based their estimates of what others would do on a write-up of a survey, making lower estimates of other's behaviors than the milk drinkers.

I figure a result of this false consensus effect is to increase the likelihood of cheating. The cheater feels assured that cheating is not a big deal, since others probably do it. Hence the justification that my buddy described, that everyone appeared to be doing it, so he should as well.

Not only are we egocentric in our thinking about cheating, but our thinking is probably affected as well. Probably every one of us has cheated at some point or another but at the same time we feel negatively about cheating. Theories of cognitive dissonance suggest that we would adjust our attitudes about cheating to be less negative in order to relieve the dissonance due to differences between our behavior and our previously held belief. While rationalizations can go a long ways towards relieving this dissonance, less negative attitudes are almost certain to result as well.

Which brings us to the case of observing cheating. Have my attitudes become more negative considering the several incidents of cheating I've witnessed as a student and teacher? Probably, because I feel injured due to these incidents. In my role of student, others' cheating may have made my work appear lesser comparison. In my role as teacher, it injures my trust of students and prompts me to take counter-measures. Excepting persons having stridently negative attitudes about cheating, these kinds of events should shift individual's attitudes negatively due to dissonance reduction processes similar to those described for cheaters.

Indeed, this shifting of attitudes is part of everyday life. We are constantly getting feedback from the world, some of which is incongruent with our previously held attitudes. Our own actions and the behavior of others will doubtless cause changes in attitudes about such phenomena as cheating, and about our estimates of others' behavior. As humans we are embedded in a social structure that gives us this feedback. It appears, therefore, that becoming accustomed to our own shifting attitudes is an important aspect of being human.


Baldwin, D.C., Daugherty, S.R., Rowley, B.D., & Schwarz, M.R. (1996). Cheating in medical school: A survey of second-year students at 31 schools. Academic Medicine, 71, 267-273.

Hansen, R.D., & Donoghue, J.M. (1977). The power of consensus: Information derived from one's own and others' behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 294-302.

Roig, M., & Ballew, B. (1994). Attitudes toward cheating of self and others by college students and professors. Psychological Record, 44, 3-12.

Bernhardt, P. (1998). Being Human: Cheating. [Online]. Perspectives. [1998, April 14].

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