The Washington Post

An easy trick to reduce cheating

(University of Nebraska-Lincoln website)
What can teachers do to help stem pervasive cheating among students?
Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has a suggestion. Willingham is a professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His newly published book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.
By Daniel Willingham
Every teacher wants his or her students to be honest. It’s not just a question of fairness, it’s a life lesson.
The challenge is that people seem to have little qualm about cheating — so long as the cheating is relatively slight: peeking at just an answer or two on a neighbor’s quiz, for example. People want to maintain their own self-concept as an honest person, and small infractions allow them to think of themselves as “basically honest” while raking in the easy profit that dishonesty can afford (Mazar, Amir, & Ariely, 2008).

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.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
It's in the details: Five ways to enhance your kitchen makeover
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
Border collies: A 'mouse trap' for geese on the National Mall
Play Videos
Bao: The signature dish of San Francisco
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
What you need to know about Planned Parenthood
Play Videos
How to save and spend money at college
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Europe's migrant crisis, explained
Next Story
Valerie Strauss · November 9, 2012

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.