When it comes to cheating, is there such a thing as free will?

Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia have created a series of experiments involving cheating on tests as an attempt to associate behavior (specifically cheating behavior) with moral beliefs and free will. In essence, they ask the question, ” ‘If people came to believe that their behavior was the inevitable product of a causal chain beyond their control — a predetermined fate beyond the reach of free will’ how would their behavior change?”



This is a fascinating subject and idea. I have personally felt that an individual’s code of ethics is a stronger deterrent against cheating than anything else. Don McCabe from the Center for Academic Integrity has shown through research the positive effect of honor codes (http://www.academicintegrity.org/educational_resources/honor_code_101.php) in maintaining academic integrity. From the Josephson Institute’s 2006 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, we read, “Widespread and deep youth cynicism often reflects itself in a rationalization process that nullifies ethical judgment and condones conduct that is contrary to stated moral convictions. Thus, the same youngsters that speak of the importance of ethics, character and trust, frequently lie, cheat and even steal without much guilt or hesitation.” http://www.josephsoninstitute.org/pdf/ReportCard_press-release_2006-1013.pdf

Although eighty-three percent of high school students believe “It’s not worth it to lie or cheat because it hurts your character” (please note that 17% feel that lying and cheating do not hurt your character), fifty-nine percent believe “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” In other words we can visualize these young people saying, “It may hurt me to cheat but I must cheat if I want to be successful.” The way the question is worded, definitely affects the response rate. For example, only forty-three percent agree that “A person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.” Relevant dishonest behaviors from the Josephson study are shown below:

Youth involvement in cheating

On September 19, 2006, The Chronicle of Higher Education stated, “More than half of the graduate business students surveyed recently admitted to cheating at least once during the last academic year.” (Survey Finds Widespread Cheating in M.B.A. Programs).

More recently, Caveon’s “Cheating In the News” referenced a story where Marianne Jennings of Arizona State University recounted recent and notable ethics lapses.


After thinking about these issues, I have the following personal observations:

  • Honor codes and codes of ethics are critical to maintaining an ethical testing environment. Test taker agreements (e.g., non-disclosure agreements) are essential for all testing programs and should contain honesty covenants.
  • Not all testing programs are in a position to require a code of ethics, but if you can do it as a part of your association or organization, you should.
  • Even without a code of ethics, you should emphasize the importance of ethical test taking. This should be a fundamental message that is always championed.
  • If you believe the adage that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” then you will direct significant resources towards ethics education, while at the same time making an example of miscreants.

In my opinion, the challenge to educate and inculcate ethics into test-taking behavior must begin with an understanding of cultural influences, moral beliefs, and perceived acceptability of such behavior. For example, our data analyses indicate that “cheating for the common good” on tests may be condoned in some Asian cultures. It seems reasonable to conclude that high-profile role models who have been caught cheating will provide others with an excuse or rationalization to “cheat.”

Here are a few other recent articles that are relevant to this topic:

Ethical Conduct continues to Spiral out of control

F for Conduct

Cheaters never win – Unless Penn lets them

Dennis Maynes

Chief Scientist, Caveon Test Security

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