We now understand enough about brain science to blame biology as well. Modern research shows that the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control (measured in the lateral prefrontal cortex) may not completely develop until early adulthood, while the parts that boost sensation-seeking (the ventral striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex) get started growing just after puberty begins. Teenagers may cheat (or do drugs or drive too fast) partly because their sense of the thrill outweighs their sense of the risk. The phenomenon is magnified when friends are present, which may help explain why teens often cheat in groups. A 2010 Temple University study found that when playing a driving video game, teenagers were more likely to take big risks and even crash when their friends were watching than they were when playing the game alone.
But why do bright kids—Stuyvesant and Harvard students—cheat? Aren’t they smart enough to get ahead honestly? One might think so, but the pressure to succeed, or the perception of it anyway, is often only greater for such students. Students who attend such schools often feel they not only have to live up to the reputation of the institution and the expectations that it brings, but that they have to compete, many of them for the first time, with a school full of kids as smart, or smarter, than they are. Harvard only admits so many Stuy students, Goldman Sachs will hire only so many Harvard kids. Competition can get ratcheted up to extreme levels. “Kids here know that the difference between a 96 and a 97 on one test isn’t going to make any difference in the future,” says Edith Villavicencio, a Stuyvesant senior. “But they feel as if they need the extra one point over a friend, just because it’s possible and provides a little thrill.”
Stuyvesant’s 2012 valedictorian, Vinay Mayar, talked about the pressure at the school in his graduation speech. Mayar, who lives on the Upper East Side and just started at MIT, called his classmates “a volatile mix of strong-minded people armed in opposition against one other.” He listed a few things his friends said epitomized the Stuyvesant experience, like “copying homework in the hallway while walking to class,” “sneaking in and out of school during free periods,” and, at the end of the list, “widespread Facebook cheating.”
Teitel, Stuyvesant’s principal, used to like to share a quip with incoming freshmen: Grades, friends, and sleep—choose two. The work can be so demanding at top schools that students sometimes justify cheating as an act of survival, or rebellion even. At Harvard, the Crimson, which broke the story, reported that part of the take-home exam—an unexpected set of short-answer questions—seemed to rankle the students. And so, even on something so relatively insignificant (as indeed the Regents were for the Stuyvesant kids), students may have felt justified in banding together against the professor and helping one another. At Harvard, “everyone thinks this incident is not unique at all,” says Julie Zauzmer, managing editor of the Crimson. “It’s fairly unique in the scale of it, and especially the way Harvard has handled it by going public. But I don’t think it’s unusual in other ways. Everyone comes here surprised to find they’re not the best anymore. Everyone feels they’re able to come out at the same point they came in.” When they can’t, perhaps, some people decide to cheat.
“Not everyone cheats, but it is collaborative,” says Daniel Solomon, a former Stuyvesant Spectator staffer who graduated in June, and is now starting at Harvard. “One of my friends told me, ‘School is a team effort.’ That’s sort of the ethos at Stuy.”
Some students rationalize cheating as a victimless crime—even an act of generosity. Sam Eshagoff, one of the students involved in the Long Island SAT scandal, justified taking the test at least twenty times, and charging others up to $2,500 per test to take the exam for them, by casting himself as a sort of savior. “A kid who has a horrible grade-point average, who, no matter how much he studies is going to totally bomb this test,” Eshagoff told 60 Minutes. “By giving him an amazing score, I totally give him … a new lease on life.”
Nayeem and I meet for dinner on a weeknight in August at the Old Town pub, near Union Square. He says he decided to speak to me to tell his side of the story, and make his case for returning to Stuyvesant. His parents know about his decision, he told me later, but aren’t happy about it.
Nayeem speaks rapidly, and barely bothers with his food when it comes. He is wearing two bands on his wrist, one from the Stuyvesant Red Cross Club, another a hospital I.D. bracelet. Back in July, as news of the cheating scandal spread, he underwent a previously scheduled surgery, the removal of a benign tumor from his leg. “That was a real low point,” he says. “I was limping home with my parents. I was experiencing physical pain from the stitches. And people were contacting me on Facebook, asking ‘What’s gonna happen to the Regents?’ ” (Nayeem’s father, Najmul, had told a reporter that the tumor, along with a recent mugging, left Nayeem stressed and forced him to miss time at school. Those factors, he said, explained the cheating incident.)