An angry mob of more than 2000 people gathered outside a school in China and chanted, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat!” Students pelted the windows with rocks and parents demanded that their children’s cheating devices be returned to them and they be allowed to retake the exams.
The exam was China’s notoriously difficult “Gaokao” exam for high school seniors, the equivalent of America’s ACT, which determines their opportunities for further education. This event occurred in the Hubei Provence city of Zhongxiang where 99 identical papers were discovered on one subject the previous year. To prevent rampant cheating this year, the province’s education department recruited a team of 54 “invigilators” to monitor the exams.
Students were required to pass through metal detectors which found mobile phones and secret transmitters, some designed to look like pencil erasers. Parents were located in hotel rooms across the street, waiting to transmit answers to the exam to the students. With an angry mob outside, the invigilators barricaded themselves in an inner room and phoned for help.
In the province of Jilin, metal detectors were also used to strip students of cheating devices including the metal clips on the girls’ bras. More than 60,000 electronic devices were seized during the operation, including clear-plastic earphones, wireless signal receivers, and modified pens, watches, glasses, and leather belts.
These episodes of cheating are not a simple case of a few students casually peeking at their neighbor’s answers. This is rampant, premeditated, and highly sophisticated dishonesty that has spawned a widespread culture of cheating. Students were not disobeying their parents and bringing shame to their families; parents participated in purchasing the electronic devices and providing answers. Only a culture of cheating can explain why they would chant, “We want fairness; there is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”
Although some might dismiss this as a unique cultural aberration that could only happen in China, I have witnessed a similar event in a finance course at my own university where we have an honor code that is widely accepted by the students. I had advertised that I was collecting information about cheating as part of my research on honesty and asked students to share their knowledge even if they did so anonymously. Several students who had taken this finance class the previous semester described a situation where a culture of cheating emerged that seemed to seduce everyone.
Since the instructor was a close friend, I interviewed him to confirm the story. Through tears he explained how he allowed students to use 3×5 cards to bring financial formulas into the exam since he didn’t expect students to memorize them. By the second exam many students brought 4×7 cards that contained more than just formulas. Since nothing happened to them, the entire class felt compelled to sneak additional information into the final exam. Indeed, some students cleverly brought reduced photo copies of entire text chapters disguised as 3×5 cards. The instructor was cleverly told to watch a student at the front of the class who was supposedly cheating. While he focused on this student through the exam the rest of the class cheated freely.
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These episodes of cheating ought to teach us an important lesson about the value of a culture of integrity. Honesty is one of the most widely-accepted social values in America; almost everyone praises honesty as a positive personal attribute. Honesty also serves as an underlying assumption for all of our economic transactions. Although we increasingly use legal contracts to guarantee economic transactions, the vast majority of our buying and selling is done with the assumption that the other party will act honestly.
We like to think of ourselves as honest people even though we occasionally violate that standard. As part of the research we did to validate the Applicant Review (an honesty test) I asked hundreds of people to write me an anonymous essay explaining how honest they really are: how often do you say things that you know are not true, how often do you take things that don’t belong to you, how often do you lie to your family or friends, and how often do you cheat in school or at work. Virtually everyone starts their essay by saying, “Basically I am an honest person,” even though they then proceed to describe a variety of dishonest actions.
Although honesty is widely accepted, it is also very fragile. People are willing to behave honestly because they believe others are also honest and everyone is expected to voluntarily uphold standards of integrity. But, the evidence suggests that when dishonesty becomes widespread, everyone can be quickly seduced into behaving dishonestly. We have learned that trust is only acquired over a long period of honest and dependable behavior; but it can be destroyed very quickly by careless acts of deceit.
A society that hopes to preserve a culture of integrity needs to actively promote it. Honesty needs to be openly encouraged; leaders need to set good examples; parents must make it a priority in their childrearing; the media needs to send clear messages about its importance; moral heroes need to be praised; cheating and dishonesty need to be punished; and a moral vocabulary that accurately labels bad conduct as immoral or wrong needs to be adopted rather than simply saying something is “problematic.” Like all positive virtues, honesty doesn’t just happen by accident; it must be carefully cultivated and taught. $