x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Professor at Dubai-linked school explains honest truth about cheating

The Life: Allegations of cheating at Harvard University raise a broader question: whether at Harvard or elsewhere, what impels students to cheat and thereby risk their education?

On an autumn day, flags hang in Harvard Yard bearing the university's slogan, Veritas, which is the Latin word for
On an autumn day, flags hang in Harvard Yard bearing the university's slogan, Veritas, which is the Latin word for "truth". Sipa Press / Rex Features

Days before the start of term at Harvard University last month, a story came to light that disheartened professors in America and beyond.

About 125 students in an Introduction to Congress class were being investigated for cheating in a take-home exam. Many of those under investigation were student-athletes, including the co-captains of the basketball team.

While the allegations remain unproven, they raise a broader question: whether at Harvard or elsewhere, what impels students to cheat and thereby risk their education?

Dan Ariely, a professor of behaviour economics at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, which has a presence in Dubai, suspects "social contagion" might be partly to blame.

Indeed, the accused students constitute almost half of the 279-pupil class in question.

"When one person cheats it is easier for other people to be dishonest," explains Mr Ariely, the author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.

Some of them would be friends, which might also have played a role.

"We have seen in many experiments that helping other people makes people feel more entitled to cheat," he says.

The alleged incident was all the more shocking because of where it took place - which reveals an interesting fact about attitudes of cheating.

People, according to Mr Ariely, have a tendency to see others as good or bad and they do not always understand the role environment plays in cheating.

"The reality is that many people, if you put them in a situation and tempt them to behave badly, [if] they can help a friend misbehave, [they] will misbehave."

Mr Ariely says many people look at scandals involving chief executives having lied on their CVs and think they themselves would not have done it.

"Maybe [the executives] just thought about one step and once they took one step they rationalised it and took the next step," he says.

"If you think about dishonesty in that way, as a ... slippery slope, maybe it is much more understandable," he says.

But Mr Ariely is careful to point out that stealing a pen from work, say, is not necessarily the start of the decline.

People create "areas of dishonesty," which means those who take something small do not necessarily go on to steal something more valuable.

But according to research that Mr Ariely was involved in, an attribute seen as positive by employers makes people more likely to cheat: creativity.

Creative people are more likely to commit devious deeds such as stealing from their employer because they find it easier to justify it, Mr Ariely says.

"We say to ourselves things like, 'Everyone else is doing it,' or 'Nobody will get harmed,' or ... something like, 'They owe me,' or, 'The workplace didn't pay me enough'," he says.

"Our capacity to rationalise and tell ourselves stories is really quite incredible."

Some industries offer more opportunities to cheat, such as law, where lawyers and law firms charge by the hour.

"It's a question of the person but it's also a question of the environment, which environment will allow people to tell you more stories," says Mr Ariely.

The reality is it is a lot easier to weed out cheats in a take-home exam than it is in the workplace. But there is something companies can do to try to prevent it.

"I don't think you want to not have creative people. But I do think you want to limit the opportunities of creative people to tell stories about why what they're doing is OK," adds Mr Ariely.

Meanwhile, Harvard is left to remind the world it is not a den of iniquity.

"We must ... not forget that the vast majority of our students complete all their assignments honestly, diligently and in accordance with our regulations and practices," Michael Smith, the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, was quoted as saying in the Harvard Gazette, the university newsletter.

gduncan@thenational.ae