Reading the news, you might well conclude that the 2010s are the decade of cheating. Dozens of runners allegedly broke the eligibility rules to enter the 2015 Boston Marathon. In 2012, 125 of the students in a Harvard University government class—with 279 students total—were accused of cheating, and 70 were eventually forced to withdraw from Harvard altogether. In 2015, the hacking of Ashley Madison’s website (“Life is short. Have an affair”) uncovered 37 million users worldwide.
The world of sports has provided seemingly endless examples. In 2013 Lance Armstrong admitted that he had cheated, for decades, while bicycling. Alex Rodriguez missed the whole 2014 Major League Baseball season for cheating. Russian weightlifters were banned from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games—and though Russia’s Olympic delegation barely escaped a blanket ban for that nation’s history of cheating, the same was not true for the Paralympic Games that followed the Olympics, where the entire Russian team was banned.
And lest we Christians congratulate ourselves, in recent years various Christian leaders have spent money given for disaster relief on their own property (the pastors of Glad Tidings Tabernacle in New York City), signed contracts to inflate their apparent book sales (Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll), and betrayed others’ trust (too many times and in too many ways to name).
The sheer volume of these cases is enough to make us despair about human character—even if we didn’t have ample evidence from our own, more or less spectacular, moments of dishonesty. Maybe we are all, deep down, just dishonest people.
But we don’t just have to speculate. We live in the age of social psychology, where researchers can actually investigate our hunches about the prevalence of dishonesty. But surprisingly, the same researchers who have confirmed our worst suspicions—people are very prone to cheat—have also discovered something less expected. They’ve found a way to practically eliminate cheating altogether.
First the bad news. Athletes and celebrities are not alone. In fact, most people will cheat if given the chance. A London Business School study had people in a control group take a test with 20 problems. When the time was up, the test was graded by the experimenters, and each participant was paid $0.50 per correct answer. On average they solved eight problems correctly.
Another group took the same test, and also knew that they would get paid $0.50 per correct answer. But here was the twist: They were told to grade their own tests and shred their answer keys when they were done—meaning they could report whatever number of correct answers they wanted and get paid accordingly, with no questions asked. What happened? They “solved” 13.22 problems correctly. Could it be that this second group was just that much better at problem solving? It could be. But I think we all know what really happened.
So far, this sounds like more of the same depressing news about dishonesty. But researchers at the University of Toronto had a really clever idea about how to expand this experiment. Their control group averaged 3.1 problems solved (these were clearly harder problems). Then there was the “shredder” group. For this group, confirming the earlier experiment, the number of problems “solved” went up, to 4.2 on average.
But—and here is the clever part—the researchers had a third group of participants. This group was given the same instructions as the “shredders,” with one difference: They were asked to recall the Ten Commandments before taking and grading the test. What happened? On average, this group reported solving just 2.8 problems. The cheating (presumably) seen in the “shredder” group was entirely gone.