Inside the Cheater’s Mind

The New Yorker:

A few years ago, acting on a tip, school administrators at Great Neck North High School, a prominent, academically competitive public school in Long Island, took a closer look at students’ standardized test scores. Some of them seemed suspiciously high. What’s more, some of the high scorers had registered to take the test well outside their home district. When the Educational Testing Service conducted a handwriting analysis on the suspect exams, they concluded that the same person had taken multiple tests, registering each time under a different name. In November, 2011, twenty students from schools in Nassau County were arrested and accused of cheating. The arrests, combined with the social prominence of the school and its students, made the case one of the most prominent cheating scandals in recent history.

When a student sits down at a test, he knows how to cheat, in principle. But how does he decide whether or not he’ll actually do it? Is it logic? An impulse? A subconscious reaction to the adrenaline in his blood and the dopamine in his brain? People cheat all the time. But why, exactly, do they decide to do it in the first place?

One early theory, promoted by the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, held that cheating is governed by our moral development: the more advanced we are, the less likely we are to cheat.

That same year, the psychologists David Messick and Max Bazerman countered with a less precise, more emotional approach, positing that cheating is the result of a highly subjective reasoning process that includes three types of argument: how we think about the world, how we think about other people, and how we think about ourselves. Eight years later, Bazerman offered an addendum to his initial view.

One recent study, out last month in the journal Psychological Science, even suggests that the common societal values of power and achievement can lead to cheating in and of themselves: they create a competitive mindset that in turn makes us more likely to engage in unethical self-promotional behavior. The results echo earlier findings that “achievement” goals—a focus on results, rather than on understanding—as opposed to “mastery” goals, increase cheating. We also cheat more when we’re feeling tired, either physically or mentally. In a 2011 study led by the cognitive psychologists Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely, researchers asked students to watch a video and either do nothing or actively ignore words that appeared on the screen at the same time.

The psychologist Nina Mazar and colleagues found that simply asking students to write down the Ten Commandments lowered their rate of cheating, whether or not they could actually recall any of the commandments or were even religious.

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

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