Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Why people cheat in academia and life

This is an essay I wrote either in 2012 and 2013 illustrating why people cheat:

It is commonly said that “most people are virtuous, but a few bad apples spoil the bunch”. This pseudo-proverb reveals a truth that many of us try not to notice but is nonetheless a reality that has been empirically observed and fact-checked. The vast majority of young people (and adults for that matter) believe that cheating is wrong. Yet, by nearly every poll, most young people cheat at least once in their high school career. So, the most important question is why do young people behave in ways that are inconsistent with their stated beliefs? Two of the major reasons behind cheating are: the survival instinct and the easy way out.



First, cheating is in one’s self-interest and increases one’s chances of survival. As Ariely said: “Everybody has the capability to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats – just by a little” (2012, p12).  I am not a psychologist, but I believe there is a mechanism within each of us which triggers a need to "save face." Saving face can mean a desire to save oneself from the angry assault of a parent or teacher; it can mean avoiding embarrassment; it can mean economic survival or a perceived pressure be it self-inflicted or inflicted by some other extraneous force. Although I cannot excuse it, I understand why an educator imposes unbearable testing pressure on his students in order to better ensure the results of the State official exams. If you tell a school administrator that his school's existence or employment might hinge on his students' performance on a test, I believe you are tempting him to cheat in order to achieve a better outcome. Most human beings have a breaking point and when anything threatens a person's livelihood, income and/or social status, you put them in a survival mode. In other words, as you threaten that individual's existence, you tempt them to reach their moral breaking point. What lies at the heart of cheating in any avenue of life, whether personal, academic or career, is self-interest, which most would argue is a particularly vile human attribute. To sum up, there may be nothing more fundamental to human existence than self-interest which, at its foundation, is an expression of our most basic instinct to survive.

Second, cheating offers an easy way out.  Cheaters break the rules to gain an unfair advantage in any competitive situation.  They do not have to cheat all the time, but once faced with a challenge that they do actually want to win, they will go back to their cheating strategies. For example, cheating in high school means better grades and likely admittance into better colleges. Cheating in college provides admission to better graduate programs and more job opportunities. Cheating in graduate school results in better job offers. Cheating among athletes with performance-enhancing drugs provides a performance advantage on the field that can start as early as high school and continue into the professional and Olympic ranks. Cheating in the financial industry results in a bigger paycheck and a faster and higher advancement. Cheating by corporations ensures continuing market share and profits (and survival) when companies are dying daily. Some people simply like to pick the easy way out. Why bother studying hard and doing all those term papers by yourself if you can use somebody else's work? Seriously, why bother? What's the point of studying, working hard, and going to college? Can't you skip all the hassle and hard work and just cheat?  After all, you’re only concerned about money or accomplishing anything “great” in this world. Unwilled to do the work, or just plain lazy, some people don't want to put the time and effort into studying and learning. They take the easy way out by cheating. This may go hand-in-hand with the belief that cheating is "easy" and "no big deal," and "everyone does it”.


Ultimately, cheating is an omnipresent phenomenon in human society and is a behaviour that we can find in the lives of the majority of any population. The reasons, however, for such a human trait seem to be more complex.

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