When Cheating is Okay

From my opinion column written for the Egremont 2Day newspaper.

I write for a lot of educational publications and course providers which never fails to bring me a continuous stream of new and novel subjects to write about. I’ve just recently finished an article looking at the psychology of cheating. I was rather stunned by what I found out.

Did you know that studies have shown that a third of scientists have engaged in ‘questionable research practices? Or that around 75% of students in America admitted to cheating in exams and written assignments?

Perhaps most amusing was the disgrace of psychologist Marc Hauser of Harvard University who had “fabricated data, manipulated results…and described how studies were conducted in factually incorrect ways.” on a paper called…wait for it… “Costs of Deception: Cheaters Are Punished…” They certainly are. Hauser lost his prestigious job.

It’s fun to point the finger at someone else but behavioural economist Dan Ariely found we’re all prone to a little cheating. He gave a paper of 20 questions to answer to participants but deliberately didn’t give enough time to complete them all. Participants were given $1 for each answer. Those that had to hand their paper in averaged at around $4 each. Those who were told to destroy their papers and just tell the researcher how many they got right averaged $7!

Ariely believes we like to feel good about ourselves but also like to win advantage (which cheating gives us) and there is a ‘fudge factor’ where the two things compete. We’re happy to cheat a little but not too much so we can continue to feel good about ourselves. Ariely found that ‘fudge factor’ can be shrunk or extended too. When tokens were given instead of dollars (and those tokens were later swapped for dollars afterwards by the participants) the cheating doubled!

Ariely also planted an actor to rather outrageously stand up and declare he’d answered all 20 questions. Interestingly, if he was wearing a T-shirt indicating he was from the same university as the other participants, cheating went up; but if his T-shirt showed he was from a different university, the cheating went down! We either join in with those who are in ‘our group’ or get on our moral high horse when they’re not.

What does all this have to do with us? Lots.

A banker, a worker and an immigrant are sitting at a table looking at 20 biscuits. The banker grabs 19 of them for himself and warns the worker – “Be careful! The immigrant is going to take your biscuit away.”

We see cheating and false accusations of cheating everywhere. Athletes who have taken drugs, political party candidates accused of cheating and I suspect the awful explosions which killed or injured so many in Tianjin, China came from someone ‘cutting corners’ to make extra profit. Just over two years ago I witnessed the Rana Plaza collapse which killed over a thousand women. It wasn’t just the owners who cheated but the companies from the West which demanded cheap production costs to maximise their own profit. But we’re happy about the West’s role aren’t we? Because that’s ‘our group’ and that makes cheating okay.

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