Why do(n’t) people cheat?

When I think of ethical conduct, at least in an academic setting, academic dishonesty or cheating is the crux that commonly comes to mind. Though it is a relatively mundane topic, and rather cliché, I feel that (as a student) it is still worth discussing.

I admit that I may (or may not) have a different view on cheating than most. For much of my life, I honestly do not understand cheating, or deeply understand why people engage in it. I do not mean that I have a transcendent ideology or am too naive to understand that people do cheat, but rather I do not understand what it would take to make me cheat (again).

One of the first and last times I cheated was in 2nd grade. I was young, and struggled mightily with spelling, a problem I still have today. I remember feeling pressure to do well, and not understanding, at least at the time, why I had such a difficult time spelling the word basket or country. To the 2nd grade me cheating seemed to make sense. I could write the words down, and just copy them over. Simple. Easy. What could go wrong? Well, apparently looking into your desk for a prolonged period of time every 5 seconds is a bit obvious. (As a substitute teacher, and a GTA I can also attest that high school students and college students are just as obvious with their methods…)

To summarize what happened next… I got caught, I got in trouble, I cried, and I felt embarrassed. Looking back, I feel that I was just as embarrassed for feeling the need to cheat as I was actually getting caught. Roughly one year later I was tested and diagnosed with dyslexia and 15 years later I am still terrible at spelling. How did cheating help me? Short answer: It didn’t, and was never going to.

I cannot say for sure if my 2nd grade mishap shaped how I view cheating, or if it was random events over the next few years, but by the time I got to high school I no longer saw the benefit of cheating. I think this can be, more or less, traced back to how I view learning. I don’t care about my grades as much as I care about understanding the information. If I would ever fail an exam I would be more disappointed in not understanding the material than getting the ‘F’. Honestly, I would rather get a ‘C’ grade and know that I understand an ‘A’ worth of the material than get an ‘A’ with the comprehension of a ‘C’.  Admittedly, I will argue for my grades, and do care about them, but more so when they do not directly represent my knowledge of a topic. My point is, I value understanding more than the grade.

This little shift in perspective, I think, makes it easier for me not to cheat. By valuing the process more than the result I have found that the result is almost always guaranteed. If you strive to understand all the material given to you (not crammed for an exam just to regurgitate it and forget it) odds are your exam will reflect a higher level of understanding, making the need for simple shortcuts superfluous. If I want an honest barometer of my work, then how would putting someone else’s work down tells me anything of value? How did cheating on my spelling test in 2nd grade help me understand that my difficulty spelling has more to do with how I perceive and view words than my intelligence? The short answer is that it doesn’t, didn’t, and never would. Cheating doesn’t provide any real benefit, but a short term payoff and the placebo that you actually understand.

I recognize that there is immense pressure on each one of us to ‘do well’, and that sometimes cheating seems like a life line. However, in a profession where our mistakes directly impact people’s health admitting what you do not know is sometimes more valuable than what you do know. I believe that some of this world’s biggest issues can be attributed to powerful people unwilling to acknowledge their own deficiencies. I believe cheating, or other unethical activities, slowly begin to blur the lines between actual and perceived understanding as well as right or wrong.

3 Replies to “Why do(n’t) people cheat?”

  1. I think this boils down to an issue of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivations. Intrinsic motivations are ones that are driven by natural satisfaction, curiosity, internally rewarding e.g. your desire for understanding material. Extrinsic motivation however stems from desires for external rewards such as grades, money, etc. It thus becomes clear why the propensity for cheating is so high. It is pretty uncommon, especially as you go lower and lower in the academic system, for students to be motivated by intrinsic motivation to learn all of the material for all of the different classes they have to take. In addition, they have been molded from the beginning of the education system to highly value extrinsic rewards, as it is how we frame our education system. In this combination of motivated by external rewards, and the “pressure to do well” it is clear that cheating can become a pervasive problem.

  2. I could not agree more with you. I cheated in the past. I am not proud of it but I acknowledge it. There was at the time a lot of pressure on my shoulder to succeed and let’s just say that It cost me more to cheat than to actually do the work. It made myself physically sick (belly aches, anxiety, trouble sleeping…). Absolutely not worth it. I learned now that cheating was not the answer for me but a better organization was. It the young professional survival guide, it says that doing it once, makes it easier to do it again. I disagree with this statement. Now, I know that it isn’t part of who I am. I believe that it was a way for me to test my boundaries, how far I’ll go to succeed, and this experience showed me that cheating wasn’t who I was. I know myself better after this experience.

  3. I like your blog post, it makes me remember what I have went through when I was in primary school. I do not know if what I have done can be categorized as cheating or helping a cheater. We were taking and exam on history and were asked to site the ten regions (subdivision of our country`s territory after the colonization period) that exited at that time. My classmate who was sitting next to me sited some kingdoms that existed earlier before the colonization (Cayor, Baol, Sine….). I think he asked me if that was correct and I said no you have to list St Louis, Dakar, Thies, etc. The fun stuff in all this is that we were not caught but my classmate ended up being the top of the class and I was at the second position. I think cheating provided him real benefit that time. However, he finally dropped school very early and he is now doing other businesses. Maybe that is the short term payoff that you have mentioned even though I truly believe that other factors have contributed to his short time at school. I have learned a lot from that experience; unethical practices or behaviors have always consequences that will make one to do(not) do it again.

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