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Study shows cheating causes ‘self-deception’among students

Students may want to think more carefully about cheating on homework assignments or using the answer key for practice tests.

Although cheating may be beneficial in the short run for receiving higher grades or quickly gaining answers and reassurance, a recent study by Duke University and Harvard Business School researchers titled “Temporal view of the costs and benefits of self-deception” has shown that cheating gives students false confidence in their abilities.

“The real questions are about what we call self-deception,” said Dan Ariely, co-author of the paper and James B. Duke professor of behavioral economics. “When we lie, how quickly [do we]... convince ourselves that we’re not really lying?”

Subjects from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina were split into two groups to take a test, with one of the two groups receiving an answer key for the purpose of checking their answers after finishing. As expected by the researchers, the group with access to the answer key got higher scores than the group that did not, said Michael Norton, co-author of the paper and associate professor of business administration at Harvard.

The subjects were then asked to predict how they would do on a second test without an answer key. The group that previously had the answers expected to continue their superior performance, but the two groups’ scores were nearly identical on the second test.

“The [group with the answer key doesn’t] seem to be acknowledging that they’re cheating, although we can show that they are,” said Zoe Chance, a co-author of the paper and a graduate student at Harvard. “So the implications are that it’s pretty dangerous to not realize you’re cheating because then you won’t be able to [correct the behavior].”

The subjects very quickly convinced themselves that their performance on the first test was due to their actual ability rather than cheating, Ariely said. Furthermore, when they were given a certificate of their false accomplishments on the first test, they seemed to think even more highly of themselves and how they would perform on the next test, he added.

This research applies to students who use study aids or practice tests with answers to help them study for tests, Chance said. Even if a student is not actually cheating but just looking for answers in a book studying with a friend, they may not accurately understand how well they comprehend the material.

Even students who do well on homework and usually receive good grades often blame test anxiety for performing poorly on exams, including the SATs and GMATs, Chance said. On practice tests, many of these students will look up a few questions or give themselves the benefit of the doubt when they score. Their poor grades on exams may be due to giving themselves more credit than they really deserved when preparing, Chance said.

The next step in this research is going to evaluate the long-term effects of cheating, Norton said.

“Once you’ve deceived yourself, how much does the world need to tell you you’re wrong before you stop deceiving yourself? That’s what we’re going to do next,” Norton said.


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