Seems like "cheating" has been on the minds of many recently. Did you see the story in the Associated Press about the mom who changed her daughter's grades? (Mom worked as a school secretary and had access to passwords.) Or perhaps the one from Common Sense Media about the use of technology as a means to enable cheating by teens? My favourite recent piece has been one on Behavioral Economics based on some research by Dan Ariely "...about why people think it's okay to cheat a little bit."
He decided to conduct a series of experiments to understand cheating. He gave test subjects a math quiz with 20 problems and promised to give a dollar for each correct answer. The problems weren't hard to solve, but Ariely imposed a five-minute time limit, making it impossible for anyone to complete the test. After five minutes, Ariely collected the test from the volunteers, scored them, and paid them for their correct answers. On average, volunters solved four questions correctly.
Next, he tempted people to cheat. He told a new group of test takers to score their own tests and tell Ariely how many questions they got correct. These volunteers reported, on average, that they solved seven questions. The interesting thing about this, says Ariely, was that the higher average wasn't because a few people cheated a lot; rather, it was because a lot of people cheated a little. Equally interesting was the fact that the amount of cheating didn't change when the reward for a correct question increased or decreased; nor did it change when the chances of being caught cheating increased or decreased.
I'm skipping over some of the details here, but what Ariely concluded was that people have a kind of "personal fudge factor" that allows them to gain the benefits of low-level cheating without damaging their self-esteem. "On one hand, we all want to look in the mirror and feel good about ourselves, so we don't want to cheat," he said. "On the other hand, we can still cheat a little bit and feel good about ourselves. So maybe what is happening is that there is a level of cheating that we can't go over, but we can still benefit from cheating at a low degree as long as it doesn't change our impressions about ourselves."
Ariely goes on to describe other revealing experiments. For instance, paying people in tokens that they could exchange for cash doubled the amount of cheating compared to paying people directly in cash. And when people saw an outsider (like a college student wearing a sweatshirt from another university) cheating, cheating among the group went down, but when a colleague cheated, cheating among the group went up.
Does this, I wonder, have any relation to why several students in a class choose to cheat on a test when their teacher isn't there? Is this why my conscience doesn't bother me when I drive 65 mph in a 60 mph highway zone because other drivers are, too? Are we socially programmed to cheat---at least just a little bit?