Hank Williams once penned the lyric, “Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you.”
As of this week 125 undergraduate students at one of the United States’ premier academic institutions, Harvard University, got a little heart-sick.
According to the Huffington Post, dozens of Harvard University students are being investigated for cheating after school officials discovered they may have shared answers or plagiarized on a final exam. A graduate teaching assistant in the 250 person seminar course discovered that the students’ exams contained several very similar passages.
Harvard officials declined to release the name of the class, the students’ names or the exact number being investigated, citing privacy laws.
“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” President Drew Faust said.
Is it not enough that these students — by virtue of studying at Harvard and thereby already having a tremendous head start on most of the world — must also cheat their way to the top of the top?
A few weeks ago the New York Observer posted an interview with Paul Piff, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. Piff studies human deception and rule-breaking.
“The unethical tendency is a human universal,” Piff observed.
Piff further explained that unethical behavior is often status driven. Specifically, Piff contends, the more status a person has, the less dependent they are on social relationships and self-focus. At the same time, we watch other peoples’ behavior to learn what’s acceptable (i.e. successful cheating). Therefore, Piff argues, more successful people are more likely to cheat, thereby increasing the chances that they will become even more successful. Successful cheating only serves to validate it as an approach to broader goal attainment. The Observer also quotes Dan Ariely, a Duke University economist and author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, a book-length treatment on cheating: “It’s something called social proof, and it’s one of the strongest forces in society.”
The recent Olympics provide a panoply of examples. Rather than the exhibition of pure athleticism that it should be, the modern Olympics devolved into a race of noble souls surrounded by hungry sharks. We need not even retread the recent discussion of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.
“If other people are cheating, it may serve me well to do the same,” says Piff. “That may be in the short term … When groups start to upset the status quo by violating the norms, people become more and more alienated, cool operation decreases and the group disintegrates.”
Ariely concurs, “The first thing is, if we’re getting caught, this is bad for us. The second thing is that we are creating a tremendous downside for society, and this can come back to haunt us. Think about living in a world where you can’t trust anybody.”
It’s sad to think that we are on the precipice of a world in which no high achievement is beyond suspicion… a world where we watch a champion athlete or business success story and instinctively wonder who they cheated to get there. While the high-profile cheats get all the attention, the more lamentable fact is that most of the deceit, unethical behavior and tomfoolery happens with much less at stake than Olympic gold. Rather than gold, most of the misery stems from subterfuge in pursuit of silver — something around 30 pieces.