Honor Codes, Cheating and Social Norms

I spent lunchtime yesterday at a gathering of students and faculty put on by Lafayette Student Government. One of the suggested topics for conversation was the possible implementation of an Honor Code. It’s apparently an extremely contentious issue and while each member of the group I encountered had different perceptions of honor codes, one of the biggest takeaways from the conversation was that social norms, or the “culture of cheating” plays a big role. How individuals perceive the actions of their peers wields influence in how much cheating actually occurs.

Today, one of the New Yorker blogs highlighted cheating and this paragraph stood out to me:

Social norms, too, play an important role in the decision to cheat: if cheating seems more widely accepted, people are more likely to be dishonest; the reverse is true as well. In one set of experiments, psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University found that if someone had obviously cheated, by finishing a problem-solving task much more quickly than would be possible had he completed it honestly, other people in the room became more likely to cheat as well—but only if they perceived the cheater to be like them. If the cheater seemed different—in this case, if he wore a rival school’s T-shirt—students became far less likely to cheat. In the case of the Long Island students, it seems that, while relatively few students actually cheated, most were aware that it was a regular occurrence. It was a student, in fact, who first brought the alleged cheating to the attention of a Great Neck counsellor. Cheating was a known, somewhat accepted norm; little wonder that it swept through five separate schools.

We didn’t really come to any conclusions. I’ve been at schools where the Honor Code meant you had to sign something saying you didn’t cheat on each test or paper and at schools where the professor wasn’t allowed to be in the room. One colleague noted the Honor Code at another college was inhibiting to learning and trust because students would turn each other in for any kind of collaboration, even that which was sanctioned by the professor.

Ultimately, though, it was a good opportunity to encourage student government to take initiative. Any change in the culture or implementation of an Honor Code has to come from them to be credible.


Author: ekfletch

I am an independent researcher on issues of gender, labor, violence, education, and children.

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