The Acceptability of Cheating

After a spate of recent disciplinary cases involving academic dishonesty, a local high school decided to have an open discussion with students and teachers about the subject of cheating. The school promised amnesty and encouraged students to be honest about their experiences in the forum.

While very few students directly admitted to cheating, the comments they made concerned their teachers. Students discussed weighing the pros and cons of risking getting caught versus the penalty they would take if their assignments were late. Others talked about the pressures they faced to get into good colleges and swore that whatever corners they cut now, they would stop once they achieved the goal of getting into a top university. Remarkably, these comments were not being made only by a small subset of the population. Students from all social groups and levels of academic achievement expressed similar thoughts.

To many of the teachers in attendance, it seemed like a generational shift had occurred. They had all been high school students at one time but now, 10, 20, 30 years later they could not imagine having such a complacent view of cheating when they were in school. It is hard to know whether actual rates of cheating had changed for this generation but the acceptability of cheating in the general community certainly had.

Perhaps though, the shift has very little to do with a generational change and instead is simply the result of cheating becoming easier for anybody to do. The internet has made it possible for anybody with a computer to cheat and has also made it significantly easier for people to uncover these lies. Stories of adults fabricating news reports and autobiographies certainly imply that academic dishonesty is not limited to high school students (see James Frey, Judith Miller and just recently, Mike Daisey).

Hearing about this discussion, I started to wonder what affect taking away some of the shame associated with cheating would have on the workplace once these students finished their schooling. While many students insisted that cheating was isolated to high schools because of the pressure of getting into a good college, it is hard to believe that once in that good college the same students won’t feel pressured to excel there in order to get into the best graduate school or have the best job upon graduation. And, if cheating is not a generational phenomenon but instead simply a reflection of the world we live in now, we need not wait for these kids to enter the workforce because their attitude already has.

How then do we deal with this problem?

    Is it simply a matter of having severe enough consequences that cheating is no longer worth the risk?

    Or is the problem on the other side and we need to think about decreasing the types of pressures that make people feel like cheating is necessary?

    Is the acceptability a societal attitude that could be changed via public shaming or a new reality that we need to learn how to work with?


  1. Dear Dr. Leiter:

    According to our experience, in Mexico, cheating is strongly asociated to competition and also with a special kind of intelligence and creativity. Several transcultural events and, the historical evolution from our society since the time of colonization from Spain had strongly influenced the idea of cheating as a resource for people to achieve the social and political position that couldn’t achieve by legal means. Unfortunately, today this situation affects the implementation of security systems at work and the quality of performance. I think it is a matter of selfsteem to be proud of doing things right and not to try to make people feel shame of something that is in a certain way, part of our culture.

  2. Heriberto

    Thank you for your thoughts on this post. You make a good point that honesty is a relationship quality. It implies respect for the party to whom you are being honest. In contrast, dishonesty implies disrespect. Mutual respect will encourage a higher standard of conduct.

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