Making Sense of Cheating

In The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, author David Callahan argues that cheating has become so common and culturally pervasive that ordinary citizens, people who do not think of themselves as cheaters, will inflate here or exaggerate there to achieve a beneficial outcome. Callahan says there are clear and powerful reasons for this behavior.

The U.S. economic climate has become so ruthlessly competitive that many people feel they have to cheat not only to get ahead but to simply survive. The obsessive focus on results and rewards has created an ethos in which people ignore or forgive those who have behaved unethically to obtain coveted results. The ends justify any means.

Most importantly, though, people cheat because, as the title of the first chapter of Callahan’s book states, “everybody does it.” Cheating has become socially acceptable.

“Cheaters never win.” Not so, Callahan says. People also cheat because, in modern American society, cheaters do win. Perhaps because cheating has become so pervasive and acceptable, chances of being caught are decreasing. And people know that even if they do get caught, punishment won’t be too severe.

Callahan posits that cheating has become a national moral crisis, and it’s hard to argue with him. Almost daily, newspapers contain stories about corporate executives ripping off shareholders, scientists manufacturing data to create desired results and professional baseball players lying about whether they took illegal, performance-enhancing drugs.

Of course, secondary and higher education is not immune to the problem. In fact, many professors argue that colleges and universities are at the center of the crisis not only because academic cheating is prevalent, but also because today’s students are tomorrow’s professionals. If students are cheating in the classroom today, professors argue, chances are good that they’ll participate in unethical behavior in the workplace after they graduate.

The Incident

Five years ago, a distraught student called Tim West at home on a Sunday night. At the time, West, an associate professor of accounting in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, was teaching at a private, prestigious Midwestern university. Two days before the student called, he had assigned a take-home problem as part of a mid-term examination in an introductory course in managerial accounting. The student called in tears not because terrorists had attacked the United States, although this had to have been on her mind. She was crying because her conscience was under attack, and she felt compelled to do the right thing even though it would negatively affect her and her classmates. She informed West that students were cheating on the take-home portion of the exam.

The professor asked the student how she knew this. She told him that students were working together on the assignment, and they had found the answer to the problem on the Internet. West was angry. During class on Friday, he had been explicit about the rules: Collaboration was prohibited, and students were not allowed to use the Web or other computer sources to obtain help in solving the problem. He did not know that another accounting professor at the university had posted the instructor’s manual for the course on the Web. This manual included the suggested answer for the problem West had assigned, and the student who called West on Sunday night said it was this site that students were consulting.

On Monday, West collected the exams and said nothing to indicate he knew the students may have cheated. He wanted to look at their answers and search for evidence that would corroborate or refute the information he received on Sunday. West started grading papers Monday night and finished grading on Tuesday. Through the grading process, he realized that the information given to him by the student was accurate.

“Clearly, they were using formats that were consistent with each other, but were not consistent with anything we had covered in class,” West said.

He stewed about it. It would not be too difficult to prove that the students had flouted the rules, which were carefully and clearly explained. Also, the university’s honor code, which was well-known by all students, mandated that students refrain from cheating and specifically addressed many situations that constituted academic dishonesty. Relevant to West’s problem, the code stated that students taking an examination may use only materials authorized by faculty, and students may not collaborate on graded assignments unless the instructor explicitly stated otherwise. These facts provided West with plenty of ammunition to punish the students if he chose to. Failing them was one option, and the offenses were severe enough to pursue more extreme measures.

“I was angry, but then I thought the better idea was to treat this as a learning opportunity,” West said. “College is about experimentation. My job as a professor is to facilitate learning, and part of that process is learning how to make decisions. Here, a bunch of people made a bad decision, but once you show them why it’s bad and try to get them to understand it, it will be a learning opportunity they will remember.”

West decided that he would help them learn how to make good decisions and try to understand what motivates students to cheat. So on Wednesday, he told his students what he knew: He had suspicions that they had cheated. He announced that the take-home part of the mid-term exam would be thrown out, and he asked the students to fill out a questionnaire, which he developed on Tuesday night, about their behaviors and attitudes regarding the situation. The professor told them that their participation was voluntary, and they were guaranteed absolute anonymity in any subsequent discussion about the incident. Furthermore, West told the students that no disciplinary charges would be brought against them.

Every student agreed to participate and completed the questionnaire. Their responses, combined with primary documents – answers to the take-home problem – and the university’s computer system, which was able to reveal which students had gone to the other professor’s Web site, confirmed that 47 out of 64 students, or 73 percent, had cheated on the take-home portion of their mid-term exam.

The Project

“You won’t believe some of these responses,” West said. “Obviously, they were deeply troubled by their decision and behavior. They were carrying a real burden.”

Students admitted that they had received inappropriate assistance, and they wrote prolifically about things such as the ethical reasoning behind their decision, their feelings about working with students who cheat, honor codes, what may or may not constitute cheating, and situations in which they think cheating is okay. With tiny words and sentences, they crammed many thoughts into a limited space. The responses were candid, thorough and prodigious. In some cases, they read like a diary full of embarrassing admissions. Other responses were defensive, like a guilty man trying to convince a jury that he is innocent.

The responses moved West. He was impressed by the honesty and the extent to which students had thought about their behavior, but he was also disturbed that all students failed to consider the impact of their behavior on others. There was a lot of explication about how cheating affected them, but no discussion about how their cheating might affect others. There was also too much attention given to outcomes. The process by which students reached those outcomes seemed to have little value. Overall, West realized the questionnaires contained meaningful information about moral reasoning and the psychological processes connected to unethical behavior.

The responses were consequential, but West also recognized that he had stumbled upon a unique research opportunity. It is difficult for researchers to study academic cheating because they cannot entrap or trick students into participation in unethical behavior. It is unethical to induce unethical behavior, and therefore, it is nearly impossible to replicate the kind of natural environment that could produce credible data.

But West didn’t have to trick anyone. He had caught students cheating without trying to catch them, and in this sense, an investigation of cheating and ethics found him rather than him looking for it.

West enlisted help from three colleagues – Sue Ravenscroft, Brad Shrader and Jeffrey Kaufmann – in the College of Business at Iowa State University, and the four researchers analyzed data from questionnaire responses and an additional test given to students to measure ethical judgment. Using a few theoretical arguments about ethical reasoning, each researcher independently read through all responses and identified common statements. They then worked together to come up with a complete list of statements, which they refined into four basic categories that explained why students cheated.

The Findings

The student who abhorred cheaters as much as drunk drivers and psychotic terrorists was one of 15 students who rationalized the decision to cheat by separating oneself from the action. Here, the basic concept is that the student committed the action but is not responsible for committing the action. They did this in two ways. The first had to do with character. Four students, including the student who abhorred cheaters, claimed they were not the type of person who would cheat, even though they acknowledged they had cheated. As West stated, the argument is “while I have cheated, I am not a cheater.” Confusion was the second method in which students separated themselves from the action. Eleven students argued that they were less culpable because they were unsure about whether they were allowed to use the Web or work in groups.

“He made me do it.” This response to the question of why a child uprooted a neighbor’s flowers or picked on another child is a simple way of explaining how 34 of West’s students rationalized the decision to cheat. The researchers dubbed this category third-party interference. These students focused on the actions of third parties that influenced their decision to cheat. Like the first category, students blamed others for their behavior in more ways than one, and, unlike the child’s response, they were more sophisticated about how they did it.

Similar to the confusion argument in the first category, professor clarity was one method in which students said they were not fully responsible for their actions. Fourteen students said they would not have cheated had West been clearer in stating instructions and rules. However, none of these students claimed that West did not tell them what they could or couldn’t do, only that they did not hear the instructions.

The researchers invoked a legal concept – attractive nuisance – to explain another method in which students point to the influence of third party as an explanation for their behavior. More complex intellectually and psychologically, this argument illustrates how far people will go to justify unethical behavior. Eight students blamed West for their behavior because, as they said, he had created a situation in which they could cheat by assigning a take-home problem with the answer accessible on the Internet. Essentially, they claimed West had induced them into cheating even though the professor did not know that his colleague had posted the instructor’s manual on the Web.

“As far as the take-home part of the exam was concerned,” West said, “I did that for the benefit of students who don’t perform well on traditional tests.”

The final argument within third-party-interference category resonates with Callahan’s explanations for why so many people cheat. Twelve students said other students had influenced their decision. “A lot of people in the school do cheat or find the easy way out,” said one student. “Unfortunately, this did reinforce my decision to cheat because I thought, ‘well if they can, then why can’t I?'”

A minority of students re-defined the action, a category of rationalizations that focus on arguments about what constitutes cheating and the acceptance of certain kinds of cheating. Five students thought that helping someone with an assignment was acceptable, but receiving help was not. Three students used an argument similar to the “everybody’s doing it” justification. They argued that while their actions constituted cheating, they considered the wrongful behavior socially acceptable.

Most cheaters, 33 to be exact, focused their rationalizations on an alternative outcome, which helped them minimize the seriousness of their behavior by comparing it to worse behavior or by emphasizing positive consequences while downplaying negative ones. By comparing their cheating, which they framed as somewhat unethical, to more serious forms of cheating, which they emphatically stated they did not do, students somehow came off sounding not too bad. For example: “I don’t really consider working with another person that unethical,” said one student. “Taking and copying answers from the key was highly unethical.”

There are more than a few baseball fans – and players, obviously – who think steroid use must be okay if it helps players hit more home runs. Likewise, many of West’s students figured that if the ends – home runs – were positive, then the means – steroid use – must be too. This echoes Callahan’s statements about the American obsession with results.

“These students rationalized that if learning is the point of the class, and collaborating helps them learn, then collaborating, even on a test, must be good,” West said.

Before discussing the meaning and implications of West’s research, it is important to mention that more than half of the students offered multiple reasons as to why they decided to cheat. Thus the total number of student rationalizations is more than the total number of cheaters.

The Meaning

West and his colleagues at Iowa State considered the above findings within the context of recent research on moral reasoning that centers on the psychological connectedness of actors to the outcome of their actions. Through concepts identified as “moral imagination” and “moral intensity,” these studies argue that strengthening this connectedness will logically result in an increase in moral behavior.

For example, because an organization establishes rules according to its mission, members of the organization sometimes do not consider the impact of their actions outside of the organization. If a member of an organization can exercise moral imagination by identifying ethical issues outside of the narrowly defined rules of the organization, then that person may have the ability to behave with a higher degree of morality.

To justify unethical decisions, actors manipulate factors associated with moral imagination and moral intensity. In West’s study, students manipulated factors through many rationalizations. He and the Iowa researchers concluded that students used these rationalizations to put space between themselves and the wrongfulness of their actions. The researchers called this process ethical distancing. The rationalizations were strategies to help students increase the distance between themselves and the outcome of their actions. By blaming a third party, by making moral distinctions between themselves and the action, by focusing on something good while ignoring the bad and by saying it was socially acceptable, students tried to shift wrongfulness away from their behavior.

The Implications

To simplify grossly, the Enron scandal boiled down to cooked books, a complex manipulation of financial statements. When they cheated, the students in West’s managerial accounting class were working with formats, or accounting formulas, for financial statements.

Without check, without an incident similar to the one that sparked West’s study, is it reasonable to expect people to behave ethically as professionals if they cheated as students? West sees a connection, or perhaps continuum, between collegial and professional behavior. He thinks the experience of getting caught positively influenced most of his students, and he hopes the study will provide insight for teachers and managers searching for guidelines to encourage ethical behavior in the classroom or workplace.

“The strategies students used to rationalize cheating are an important warning about the future professional behavior of today’s students,” West said. “If tomorrow’s managers are going to be able to prevent unethical behavior, then the processes by which these strategies emerge need to be clearly understood.”

The End

And what about the student who called West at home on a Sunday night five years ago? Her name is Jill Larson. She graduated with a degree in business and worked for a year as an executive-compensation consultant. She then entered a post-baccalaureate premedical program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and she will begin medical school in the fall of 2007.

“The experience helped shape my definition of what it means to be ethical,” Larson said. “Now, some of my moral decisions are more black and white because the experience gave me a benchmark from which I could compare other situations. It made me realize that even though a significant part of the population won’t make every ethical decision, I must still be true to what I believe and follow the right path. Peer pressure is difficult to overcome in college and it doesn’t get any easier in professional life. My experience with Professor West gave me courage and confidence to stand up for what I believe to be true or ethical in controversial situations.”

West holds the BKD Lectureship, an endowed lectureship established by the Baird, Kurtz & Dobson accounting firm for an outstanding accounting faculty member.

About The Author

Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246 or

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

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