Cheaters don’t want to ‘be a cheater’

People like to think of themselves as “basically honest,” even though they’re willing to cheat, writes Dan Willingham in An Easy Trick to Reduce Cheating.

An experimenter asked people on the Stanford campus to play a game to determine “the rate of cheating” (or “the number of cheaters”) without knowing who’s “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.)

It should work with students in middle or high school, Willingham thinks.

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.

At the end of sophomore year in high school, my daughter told me that a classmate had stolen the Spanish teacher’s book, photocopied all the tests and returned the book.  The cheater had given copies of the tests to any student who wanted them. My daughter was in the small minority who refused to cheat. “I would have had to come up with some reason why it was OK to cheat,” she said. “And then I’d have been a cheat and a liar. Why would I do that to myself?”