Why Do People Cheat?

Given that teachers were involved in the latest widespread cheating scandal, can anyone be immune to this practice?

For 15 years, teachers in three states paid to have tests taken for them so that they could qualify to work in the public schools, according to a report by the Associated Press.

It is far from the first example of highly organized cheating ring. But the fact that this one involved teachers, who are supposed to help children learn about the importance of honesty, raises questions about what motivates people to cut corners and whether anyone is immune to temptation.

The scandal also puts a spotlight on the messiness of morality and the often-incomprehensible behaviors of people who seem "good" but sometimes do "bad" things.

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"My overall view is that moral character isn't this fixed thing that occurs from childhood where the typical motif is an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other," said David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston and author of "Out of Character: The Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us."

"We think of morality as a battle between short-term impulses and long-term impulses," he added. "Often, if you cheat, it can be great for you in that moment. However if you are found to be a cheater, in the long-term, that's terrible for you. There are costs and benefits, and different people have different prices."

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In a 2008 study, DeSteno and colleague Piercarlo Valdesolo brought people into the lab, where participants were told they were going to have to do either an easy 10-minute task or a series of long, hard math and logic problems that would take 45 minutes. Whichever task they didn't do would need to be completed by the person who followed them in the workstation.

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Participants could assign themselves one of the tasks or use a virtual coin flip to decide which one they would do. Fewer than 10 percent of people gave themselves the hard job, the researchers reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The majority either took the easy way out or flipped the coin again and again until they got the answer they wanted.

Afterwards, "cheaters" rated their behavior as generally fair on a seven-point scale. But when they watched someone else do the same thing, they were much harsher in their judgments of immoral behavior.

Even though the stakes of cheating in this kind of academic experiment are far lower than cheating on teachers' exams, the findings illustrate some of the ways that people can subconsciously rationalize their own behavior to justify actions that they know objectively to be wrong.

"The one thing we know about moral behavior from the past 10 years of research is that it's a lot more variable than anyone predicts," DeSteno said. "We are always saying, 'Oh my God, that is so out of character.' But there is always someone doing something out of character."

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When it comes to a widespread cheating scandal, people become more likely to succumb when others around them are doing it, swayed by an influential social norm, said Dan Ariely, a psychologist and behavioral economist at Duke University, and author of "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves."

"People in general know what's right and wrong," Ariely said. "In this case, it seems the people around them were engaging in this behavior and therefore it's easy to assume people were just learning from their social circle that this kind of behavior was OK."

In situations where people face a system they think is corrupt or unfair, Arieiy added, it also becomes easier to justify bad behavior, which might explain the actions of teachers who resented the tests for some reason.

A number of studies suggest that cheating has become more common in recent years, though none of the research has been done in a controlled experimental way, said Neal Kingston, director of the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at the University of Kansas in Lincoln.

Still, the problem is common enough that companies now exist solely to detect and prevent cheating on major assessment exams. Just last year, Kingston organized the first conference for researchers to discuss statistical techniques for detecting test fraud. The second such conference will take place next fall at the University of Kansas.

Whether cheating is getting worse or we are simply more aware of it now, one thing is clear: Cheaters are getting savvier. Especially in cases of impersonation, Kingston said, methods seem to have become more sophisticated and scandals have become larger in scale.

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Like doping in professional cycling, the recent teachers' scandal represents just another step in the arms race between cheaters and detection systems.

"In 1974 I knew a case where a student discovered lax security in a GMAT testing center for students who registered late," Kingston said. "He paid someone to register late with him and as late-comers they were sat next to each other.

"After the test started and they signed their answer sheets, they each dropped them on the floor and picked up the one with the other person's name and took the test," he continued. "In a stroke of ironic justice, the person who paid scored significantly higher than the impersonator, but was stuck with the impersonator's score."

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