4/23/13 - humans cheat

In today's selection -- not all people cheat, but cheating is "astoundingly common", and people are much more inclined to cheat if others around them are cheating:

"Although it is comforting to think that most people are essentially honest, cheating -- defined as acting dishonestly to gain an advantage -- is actually astoundingly common. In a 1997 survey, management professor Donald McCabe of Rutgers University and Linda Klebe Treviño, a professor of organizational behavior at the Pennsylvania State University, revealed that about three fourths of 1,800 students at nine state universities admitted to cheating on tests or written assignments. In 2005 sociologist Brian Martinson of the HealthPartners Research Foundation in Bloomington, Minn., and his colleagues reported that one third of scientists confessed to engaging in questionable research practices during the previous three years. ...

"Humans are surprisingly quick to cheat when the circumstances are conducive. In 2008 behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University and his colleagues described what happened when they asked college students to solve math puzzles for cash rewards. When the researchers changed the experimental conditions such that the students assumed the examiner could not detect cheating, the average self-reported test score rose significantly. The researchers determined that the scores were not inflated by a few students who cheated a lot but rather by many students cheating a little. ...

"If cheaters used a simple cost-benefit calculation, one might predict that people would cheat as much as possible, not just a little bit. Yet in Ariely's study, students on average reported six correct answers when they got only four right, even though they could have raised their scores to a maximum of 20. In addition, no simple relation exists between the magnitude of the reward and the likelihood of cheating. When Ariely's team increased the cash reward, the amount of cheating actually declined. Ariely suggests that the students felt guilty when they cheated more or received larger amounts of cash through dishonest behavior. ... Another possibility is that the students thought they would be less likely to attract attention if they cheated only a little. ...

"In 2011 Ariely and behavioral economist Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School reported that people who score higher on psychological tests of creativity are more apt to engage in dishonesty -- a connection that is perhaps not surprising considering that creativity and tactical deception are both products of the neocortex. ... They submit that creative individuals are better at self-deception: they come up with more inventive rationalizations for cheating as a way of making themselves feel better about doing it. As Proust observed in Remembrance of Things Past, 'It is not only by dint of lying to others, but also of lying to ourselves, that we cease to notice that we are lying.' Or as George told Jerry on Seinfeld 75 years later, "It's not a lie if you believe it." Ironically, the creativity and intelligence that we regard as distinctly human might have arisen alongside our ability to deceive. We are who we are because we cheat. ...

"Unchecked dishonesty can promote the perception that one must cheat to remain competitive, ... and [certain] observations have led Ariely to refer to cheating as 'infectious.' ... Social contagion may help explain the high prevalence of cheating in relatively small groups of people. For example, 125 Harvard students were recently under investigation for cheating on the final examination in an introductory government course. (More than half these students were told to withdraw from school for up to a year as punishment.) It is statistically unlikely that nearly half the 279 students in that class are sociopaths given the low prevalence of sociopathy -- about 3 percent in males and 1 percent in females. A more plausible explanation is contagion. The widespread bending of the rules probably led students to conclude that collaborating with other students was okay. (The class was called 'Introduction to Congress,' so perhaps the students were simply identifying too much with the material.)"


Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall


"Why We Cheat"


Scientific American Mind


May/June 2013


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