Sunday, March 15, 2009

Is Cheating Contagious?

Academic dishonesty in law school is no small matter.

As one author reports, "The concern and awareness about academic misconduct is not unwarranted. Integrity is a cornerstone of the legal profession and statistics concerning cheating are real. Surveys have shown that seventy percent of high school and college students admit to having engaged in some form of cheating, and that forty-five percent of law students admit to having cheated.” See Caroline P. Jacobson, Academic Misconduct and Bar Admissions: A Proposal for a Revised Standard, 20 Geo. J. Legal Ethics at 739 (2007).

But is cheating among students contagious?

According to an article on, new research suggests some interesting conclusions:

"The idea was to see how many of the students followed the cheater's example—to see if blatant dishonesty boosted cheating among students generally. And it did, dramatically. But the psychologists added another twist to the experiment: sometimes they had the actor wear the T shirt of a rival university, other times not. They wanted to see if the cheater's group identity—classmate or outsider—influenced the level of copycat cheating. That is, would students cheat more (or less) when they saw a rival cheat, as compared to seeing a compatriot cheat?

The results were unambiguous. As reported in the March issue of Psychological Science, fellow classmates had much more influence than outsiders. Indeed, seeing a rival cheat actually lowered the level of overall cheating slightly—compared to students who simply cheated on their own initiative, without any prodding. These findings argue against the "cold calculation" theory of cheating. After all, if the students only weighed the can-I-get-away-with-it factor, then they would have been influenced equally by the successful cheating of both compatriot and outsider. And they weren't."

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