Cheating is nothing new. But the steady stream of famous faces and institutions that got caught up in it this year seems unprecedented — 2012 may well have been the Year of the Cheater.
Lance Armstrong. David Petraeus. Goldman Sachs. Harvard University. The Air Force Academy. Olympic athletes. From doping in sports to cooking the books, test-taking schemes and extramarital affairs, the list of very public examples goes on and on. And Americans hardly even seem shocked anymore.
We’ve seen “higher levels of cheating in different spheres” of society, and “people are exposed to more dishonesty around them,” says Tom Gabor, a consultant in criminology and criminal justice in West Palm Beach, Fla.
That “has a snowball effect,” he adds. “It legitimizes further dishonest behavior.”
Whether it’s the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report that Armstrong and his team used drugs to get those seven Tour de France titles, Petraeus’ secret e-mail accounts to attempt to hide an affair, or any number of instances in high finance or education, the scandals of the past year illustrate a clear change in how we view misconduct.
Those who study cheating say a confluence of factors has led to it becoming more pervasive and more socially acceptable: Technology makes it easier to cheat, and an increasingly competitive social environment — from grade school through college and into the workplace — makes us feel more pressure to do so. Increased exposure to cheating, either through news reports or personal knowledge, makes it seem as if everyone is doing it, say behavioral researchers.
And that’s left us wondering if we’re all just a step away from unethical behavior.
“Cheating creates its own gravitational force. The very act of cheating and getting away with it significantly increases the chances you’ll do it again,” says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles. In its annual survey of high school students, 51% admitted cheating on an exam in the past year.
Some people may experience a psychological “high” from cheating, suggests research presented earlier this year at a meeting of the Academy of Management. That may further explain why “unethical behavior is so pervasive and persistent when the stakes are low and the benefits are negligible,” the study said.
But whether it’s getting into the right college or showing profits in a tough economy, “as the competition gets fierce, more people find themselves in situations” where they feel pressure to cheat, says Albert Bandura, a professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University in California. And as cheating becomes more prevalent, “it’s regarded more as a social norm.”
“Very few people can be vastly dishonest, but most people can be slightly dishonest and at the same time think of themselves as good people,” says Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Examples, he says, range from little white lies “to adding a few things to expense reports or cheating at golf.”
“As we see things happening around us that give us a sense that other people are dishonest, it is easier for us to be dishonest as well,” says Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves.
School cheating has been a particular concern; it has been reported at all levels and among students, teachers and administrators at such competitive institutions as Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the Air Force Academy (where cadets were accused of cheating on an online test in late April) and Harvard University.
Donald McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University-Newark, says technology and the Internet have created new opportunities to blur ethical bounds. “People have redefined what constitutes cheating in line with the technologies available now,” says McCabe, co-author of Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It, published in September.
A study by business professors at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh found that the more online help college students were able to use for an assignment, the more likely they were to copy the work of others. “These results demonstrate the significant role of technology in enabling negative behavior and the relative inability of principled moral reasoning to overcome it,” said the authors in the Journal of Business Ethics in October.
People can adjust their moral compasses to fit their unethical behavior, says Lisa Shu, a visiting assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Shu is lead author of a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found through a series of experiments that people forget the moral rules after they cheat.
“We pay a psychological toll when we choose to cheat,” she says. “When people cheat, they bend their beliefs so they are more lenient with their moral standards.”
Bandura is focusing on this moral disengagement in a new book that he hopes to complete early next year.
“If everyone is doing it, it’s then seen as what you do, and there is no big issue of morality,” he says. “It gets at the root of why good people are doing it and not feeling bad about it.”
Josephson, whose institute created a character education program used in schools across the country, is distressed about the erosion of ethical behavior.
“Cheating is wrong — unequivocally wrong — and it’s corrosive because it undermines social institutions and personal integrity,” he says. “We haven’t lost our moral compass. People, including kids, still have a pretty good notion of right and wrong, though there is a great tendency to rationalize.”
Eugene Soltes, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard, says one of the strongest classroom debates occurs every year when he teaches financial reporting, which he did just after Thanksgiving to 900 first-year business students.
Harvard is one of the nation’s most competitive campuses, so when reports surfaced over the summer that about half the students in a class of 250 may have shared answers or plagiarized on an exam, there was much discussion about the need for an honor code to refocus attention on academic integrity. Soltes says the gray areas are particularly blurred in business.
“There’s a lot that people can do that is within the law that has the exact same effect as things that are illegal,” he says. “The question is, if you figure out a clever trick that is maybe a loophole or maybe an oversight a law hasn’t addressed, … ought a manager exploit that opportunity? These are the things in a competitive market that managers can be pushed to, in many cases.”
McCabe says his student surveys have found cheating more common among business students than others. “Students have told me over the years they have to get the job done, and they don’t care how,” he says.
In the business world this year, financier Allen Stanford of Houston was convicted and sentenced to 110 years in prison without parole for his part in a $7 billion Ponzi scheme. Bernie Madoff’s brother, Peter Madoff, last week was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy and falsifying books and records for his brother’s investment company. And former Goldman Sachs director Rajat Gupta was found guilty of insider trading in one of more than 50 federal cases involving Wall Street misconduct.
“Most people are susceptible to influences in their environment and can be swayed to cheat depending on how permissive their environments are,” researcher Shu says. “It is difficult to label people as always cheaters or always honest people — there are very few Madoffs or Mother Teresas among us.”
She was the lead author of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September that found 10% less cheating if participants signed documents before rather than after reporting the odometer mileage for insurance purposes. Most documents now are signed at the end, but she says moving the signature did alter behavior.
“We didn’t change the language. We were simply testing the effect of signing your name before reporting facts vs. signing your name afterward,” she says. “Just this minimal change in the location of the signature led us to observe increased honesty.”