How can we encourage students to be more honest?
Christopher Bryan and his colleagues (Bryan, Adams, & Monin, 2012) had a clever approach to this problem. In talking to people about the subject they either referred to “cheating” or “being a cheater.” Note that the latter term makes cheating part of one’s identity. If people are ready to cheat because they are able to maintain their positive self image as a basically honest person, then reminding them that one who cheats is, in fact, a cheater, ought to make it harder to tell oneself that lie.
The test was simple. An experimenter approached people on the campus of Stanford university, and said:
We’re interested in how common [cheating is/cheaters are] on college
campuses. We’re going to play a game in which we will be able to
determine the approximate [rate of cheating/number of cheaters] in
the group as a whole but it will be impossible for us to know whether
you’re [cheating/a cheater].
Subjects were asked to pick a number from 1 to 10, and then were told that if they had picked an even number they would receive $5, but if the number were odd, they would receive nothing.
When the experimenter used the word “cheater” 21% of subjects reported having picked an even number, but when “cheating” was used, 50% did. (Other research has shown that there is a strong bias to pick odd numbers in the task; that’s why the rates are so low.)
Two further experiments replicated the effect.
Could teachers make use of this finding? The experiment was not, of course, conducted with K-12 students in an academic setting. But I suspect that the basic manipulation — subtly confronting the individual with the fact that even minor infractions does say something about his or her character — ought to work the same way with students in middle or high school.
That said, it’s worth pointing out that other data from Dan Ariely show that a reminder of the positive aspect of the person’s moral spectrum also helps. In one well-known experiment (Mazar & Ariely, 2006) asking subjects to name the Ten Commandments made them less likely to cheat. The interpretation is that recalling the ten commandments made people reflect on their moral values.
In short, the ideal is to remind people of their best side, their good intentions, and then remind them that cheating — sorry, being a cheater — is not compatible with their image of themselves.