Eric Anderman, a professor of educational psychology at Ohio State University, has been studying cheating in schools for decades. He says research shows that close to 85 percent of all kids have cheated at least once in some way by the time they leave high school (boys tend to cheat a bit more than girls, although they might just be more likely to admit the transgression; otherwise, cheating is fairly uniform across demographic groups). Three months before Nayeem walked into his physics Regents Exam, the Stuyvesant Spectator, the school’s official student newspaper, happened to publish the results of a survey it conducted in which 80 percent of respondents (nearly two-thirds of the school’s 3,295 students) admitted to cheating in some way, with only 10 percent saying they’d ever been caught. Seventy-nine percent of all students, and about 90 percent of seniors, admitted to learning about questions before tests at least once a year.
It’s impossible to determine whether the recent incidents reflect an uptick in the overall incidence of cheating (“It has been high, it continues to be high, and it’s extremely high now,” says Anderman). But the much-publicized scandals have shined a light on the problem, and social psychologists say today’s high-school students live in a culture that, perhaps more than ever, fosters cheating, or at least the temptation to cheat. The prime offender, they say, is the increased emphasis on testing. Success in school today depends not just on the SAT, but on a raft of federal and state standardized exams, often starting as early as fourth grade and continuing throughout high school. More than ever, those tests determine where kids go to college—and most kids believe that in an increasingly globalized, competitive world, college, more than ever, determines success. (A weak economy only intensifies the effect.) Carol Dweck is a Stanford psychology professor. Her research shows that when people focus on a score rather than on improvement, they develop a fixed idea of their intellectual abilities. They come to see school not as a place to grow and learn, but as a place to demonstrate their intelligence by means of a number. To a student with that mind-set, the importance of doing well, and the temptation to cheat, increases. In 2010, Eric Anderman found that even the most impulsive cheaters cheated less often when they believed the point of the test was to help them master the material, not just get a score. “If everything is always high-stakes,” Anderman says, “you’re going to create an environment conducive to cheating.”
The culture of sharing appears to also create fertile ground for cheating. It’s not just that e-mailing, texting, and the web make exchanging answers and plagiarizing far more practical. We live in a Wikipedia world, where file-sharing and blurry notions of personal privacy have, for some young people, made the idea of proprietary knowledge seem like a foreign, almost ridiculous, concept. If in the seventies, some students argued that pocket calculators made it senseless to do arithmetic by hand, now the very value of sole authorship is called into question. Today’s plagiarists may not even think they’re doing much of anything wrong, according to Kristal Brent Zook, the director of the M.A. journalism program at Hofstra University on Long Island, who recently wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review about students who lift passages, apologize, and then do it again and again. “I mean, the word plagiarism, to me, is a hurtful word,” she said one Hofstra student told her when accused.
It’s tricky business to blame the Dick Fulds of the world for breeding a generation of cheaters, but Wall Street titans, politicians, and other high-visibility leaders who cheat—and especially when they get away with it—can have an impact. Dan Ariely, a Duke social scientist and the author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, has made a career studying the effects of social norms on decision-making, particularly when it comes to irrational and unethical decisions. “There is right and wrong, and there is what people around us tell us is right and wrong. The people around us are often more powerful,” Ariely says. “There’s a speed limit, but you see people around you driving at a certain speed, and you get used to it pretty quickly.” In one experiment, Ariely and his team filled separate rooms with test-taking Carnegie Mellon students and hired two acting students to visibly cheat with impunity in front of them, one in each room. One of the actors wore a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt, the other a Carnegie Mellon sweatshirt. Ariely found that in the room where the actor was wearing the University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt, fewer people followed his lead. But in the room where the actor was wearing a Carnegie Mellon sweatshirt, more cheating took place. The Pittsburgh cheater was not one of the group, so the cheating felt less normal; the Carnegie Mellon cheater was one of them, so it didn’t seem like such an unacceptable thing to do.