Quote Card by Opinion.

The dictionary definition of cheating is “acting dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.”

Let’s break it down semantically. People act “dishonestly” to “gain an advantage.” But what constitutes an advantage? And what does it mean to act dishonestly? Upon first inspection, these may seem like trivial questions, but delving deeper reveals a few caveats. 

The notions of honesty and dishonesty are relative to understood rules. For instance, consider a relationship where a rule of sexual exclusivity has been set. In this case, infidelity is cheating. If I’ve been using unauthorized materials in completing any academic activity, such as using my phone during a test, I’ve been academically dishonest, as I’ve violated the rules against using these materials. If a friend lies to me, I would view them as dishonest as they’ve violated the norms I’ve implicitly set regarding friendship. 

There’s a glaring problem with the dictionary definition, namely its lack of nuance. Cheating is this far-reaching term whereby rules are broken in both small and large forms, but it doesn’t stop to consider the broader context in which those rules are instituted. In some cases, these rules are unfair, meaning they, in a sense, cheat someone out of a fair existence. 

Cheating can take a large form, like relationship infidelity, or a small form, like stealing. The mentality of a smaller-scale cheater can be captured in a phrase: the end justifies the means. If there are two routes, they’re taking the easy one, even if it means breaking the rules. But this doesn’t seem outlandish at all; it’s normal human expediency. 

For instance, consider an individual who isn’t financially well off, so they shoplift at a local Walmart. At the surface level, this is a form of cheating — they’ve thwarted the law and the rules of the economy. But let’s say this individual is a victim of the systemic racial wealth gap. The disproportionate toll on minority households was a product of accumulated inequality during the last four centuries. Thus, a larger-scale societal cheating engendered the shoplift.

There’s a large population who would directly benefit in shoplifting from Walmart. However, if too many steal, Walmart begins to take notice and tighten up security, which lessens the amount of shoplifts possible. Meanwhile, most financially stable people have the privilege of remaining indifferent to this dilemma. 

It’s statistically proven that students from richer families tend to score higher on the SAT and other standardized testing than students from poorer families. These richer students have a larger breadth of educational resources at their disposal, making it easier for them to do well on these exams. It makes sense that a poorer student has a higher propensity to academically cheat than a richer student. The smaller-scale cheating on a test is derived from a larger-scale educational inequality. 

In the aforementioned definition, the only incentive to cheat is to gain an advantage. Furthermore, does this advantage have to be relative to other people? Or can it be relative to one’s prior situation? In the case of the shoplifter or the SAT cheater, the individuals are solely concerned with keeping their head above water. However, this isn’t consistent with the malicious perception of cheating, whereby people cheat to elevate themselves above others. But can you really gain an advantage if you started off disadvantaged?

In any smaller-scale cheating situation, there’s probably a group of people who view it as unfair, regardless of whether the cheater’s only motive is to improve their situation. This group most likely consists of individuals who would benefit from this smaller-scale cheating, but refuse to cheat for whatever reason: a moral conscience, a fear of getting caught, etc. The already disadvantaged group has been compensating for their circumstances with laborious work and have grown frustrated at the double standard. 

But if there’s that many people who need to steal, stealing probably isn’t intrinsic to any individual, but rather the result of a larger-scale problem. Generally speaking, as this disadvantaged pool increases, so will the magnitude of frustration towards smaller-scale cheating as more and more people are affected. This frustration, in turn, leads to a universally negative view of cheating. 

The first step to change this view is to remain cognizant of the dynamic between larger and smaller-scale cheating. But as with all things in life, cheating isn’t black and white. Oftentimes, cheating is a product of an overarching systemic issue.

It’s worth mentioning that larger-scale cheating doesn’t necessarily justify smaller-scale cheating. For instance, infidelity in a relationship is deemed cheating. However, this relationship could’ve been extremely toxic, which prompted unfaithful behavior. 

Cheating is incredibly pervasive in our lives. We’re all beneficiaries and victims of cheating, regardless of whether it’s happening deliberately; it’s embedded in the fabric of our society. As humans, we’re taught to act in our best interests, and when these interests conflict, we immediately blame the individual and sweep the contextual details under the rug. 

If we shift our attitudes, it’d be easier to manufacture proactive solutions for the larger-scale cheating, like infidelity. In addition, we’d have a more open-minded worldview if we didn’t reactively make judgment calls on people who appear to be cheating. Everything has a cause and effect, and it’s important we consider both when preparing for a course of action.

Rohit Ramaswamy is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at rohitra@umich.edu.

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