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Terry Stawar

The recent college admissions scandal involving celebrities like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin has been getting a lot of attention lately. Unfortunately it’s not surprising that so many parents and students are willing to cheat to get high scores on college admission exams.

Some parents have bribed test proctors to alter scores and others were involved in byzantine schemes to steal advance copies of the tests. Back in 2011, 20 students were apprehended in another cheating scandal that involved students each paying impersonators to take college admission examinations for them.

This reminded me of one time when I was assigned to administer psychological testing to a student referred to the mental health center by his school. I tested the young man, but later found out that he was not the same student who originally had come in and been given the appointment. Evidently the student had convinced one of his friends to come in and take the tests for him. Fortunately the receptionist had recognized the old switcheroo.

People cheat in schools, in the workplace, in sports and games, and other situations that involve competition. According to neurologist Anjan Chatterjee from the University of Pennsylvania, “Cheating is easy to justify when you see yourself as a victim of some sort of unfairness.” Cheaters may justify their behavior by rationalizing that the teacher is partial, the test is biased, or the other students have some other kind of unfair advantage. For these folks cheating is just leveling the playing field. The brain inherently takes the path of least resistance, making low-level cheating an adaptive natural response. Also cheaters are seldom concerned with long-term consequences. They just don’t bother to consider them. Like many criminals, they often have a sense of invulnerability and believe that they will never be caught.

Most people, however, will follow rules perceived as fair, even when they have the opportunity to break them. In Freakonomics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner discuss a baker who sold bagels on the honor system. This baker dropped his bagels off at office buildings, along with an unattended cashboxes for people to put in money. Over time he found that he received about 90 percent of his owed payments. This finding supported other studies which suggest that Americans are honest about 90 to 95 percent of the time in low-stakes transactions.

People who move from minor cheating to out and out fraud, usually have made a deliberate choice. Besides holding strong feeling of being treated unfairly as a motivation for cheating is the pervasive fear of being taken advantage of and being seen as a fool. Many cheaters resent authority or the imposition of rules that they see as unnecessary and inconvenient. This ignoring of rules can easily be seen in behaviors such as texting in cars, smoking in no-smoking designated areas, or not using mandated safety equipment such as seatbelts and helmets.

Also, Maurice Schweitzer from the University of Pennsylvania believes that some cheaters are people who are “super competitors.” They see any competition as a challenge to beat others, rather than as an opportunity to display their true ability. They view cheating as just another acceptable smart, and often winning tactic.

According to a survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, more than half of American teenagers report cheating on a test during the school year. More than one-third have cheated more than twice. Also, a growing number of students are using online resources to plagiarize assignments. College cheating is even more common. In one study over 82 percent of a sample of graduates admitted cheating back when they were in college.

School cheating has been associated with other kinds of dishonesty in life. In a Southern Illinois University study, researchers found that cheating students saw themselves as significantly more likely to break workplace rules, be unfaithful to spouses, and engage in illegal activities. People who cheated as students have also been found to be more likely to lie to supervisors, inflate insurance claims, and cheat on their taxes.

Increasing pressures to succeed in school and eventually land a good job is cited by experts as the biggest reason for academic cheating. The risk for cheating increases significantly when it involves coursework that the student cares little about and only sees as a means to an end. Cheating can also change a person’s moral judgment. Studies at Harvard, for example, have shown that after cheating, people tend to perceive it as being less immoral than they did before.

Students tend to look to their peers for indications regarding what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable. Psychologist David Rettinger, from the University of Mary Washington, says that, “Cheating is contagious.” He believes that seeing other students cheat disinhibits and increases the tendency to cheat.

Even my Miss Perfect wife, Diane, was tempted to cheat in high school. Due to an injury and hospitalization, she was very behind in her experimental programmed algebra workbook, which had all the answers in the back. She just copied down the work and the answers, but ended up with a “D” that term, because she hadn’t really learned the material. This was so unacceptable to her, she never short-changed math homework again and went on to teach her knucklehead boyfriend (me) how to factor equations.

In recent years a number of ways have been identified to help deal with the problem of cheating. First of all peer disapproval is especially effective in reducing cheating. Since it’s also been found that when people know they’re being watched they cheat less, even subtle signs of surveillance, like mirrors or pictures of eyes, can dissuade cheating.

Making a commitment to an honor code may also help, especially when students are frequently reminded of it and given adequate prompts. Finally since cheating is situational in nature it is also important to avoid putting students in situations where they’re tempted to cheat. This seems to be especially true when they’re fatigued and self-control may be depleted.

A number of famous sports legends have been credited with the saying, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” In education, however, when you cheat it’s clear that you’re only cheating yourself.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at

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