It’s not silent in the lecture hall, but it might as well be. More than 200 students, sitting one seat apart from each other, cannot fail to generate noise in this steeply sloped lecture hall. Papers rustle, chairs squeak and shift. Listen hard enough and you can hear the scrape of your neighbor’s pencil on a Bluebook.

Jessica Boullion
Jessica Boullion
Jessica Boullion
Kingson Man

A muffled cough. And again. Wherefore this rude interrupt? She clears her throat, louder. A pained expression, a display of great discomfort. She makes eye contact with the proctor and points towards the door. He nods. She scampers to the ladies’ room, where an organic chemistry textbook is artfully stowed in the wastebasket beneath a mound of paper towels.

What better way for this column to kick off the academic year than with a rousing revue of the data on student misconduct? Students have always come up with ingenious methods to get optimal grades with minimal effort, but psychologists, sociologists, economists and others at the University have been keeping up in the arms race.

Based out of the College of Engineering, Exploring Ethical Decision-Making in Engineering group studies the motivations behind student cheating. Why the College of Engineering? According to the group, engineering undergrads historically report the most cheating of all students.

This finding has two possible interpretations. Engineers cheat more, or engineers admit to it because they are fundamentally guilty people. Either way, I don’t want them building my bridges.

The experienced, suave cheat – a psychology major, say – comes up with various psychological techniques to justify his behavior. One, called “neutralizing” by the cheating study group, is the offloading of responsibility to external factors. The exams are too hard or the professor doesn’t care or the material is uninteresting.

“Students believe it is the instructors’ responsibility to limit cheating,” wrote the group in a 2006 paper.

This belief is part of the shift in the role of college education from a once-distinct privilege to a mass-produced commodity. These years are just another stop in the assembly line up to the real world. The cheaters are paying 30 grand a year to be entertained, not to be stressed out.

Innocuous, spur-of-the-moment decisions can become habits and eventually swell to fill other spheres of life. One wouldn’t be surprised to find that the same brain circuits underlying drug addiction are responsible for academic dishonesty. In fact, cheating in college has been linked to drug abuse, along with shoplifting, unethical workplace behavior and not paying income taxes.

The cheating study group creates a framework that gives primary and secondary importance to the various factors that lead a student to cheat. As engineers are wont to do, they confine reality and common sense into fanciful but impressive flowcharts. A box labeled “peer behavior” is connected to another one labeled “frequency of temptation”.

A particularly intriguing result of their surveys was students’ dissociation between belief and behavior. Most students find cheating morally reprehensible, but very few do anything about it when they see it. Some may approach the cheater directly, and 5 percent will alert the instructor. Some write newspaper columns. And 70 percent do nothing.

Robert Axelrod, a professor in the political science department and the Ford School of Public Policy, wrote “The Evolution of Cooperation,” in which he used computer models to explore what happens to populations of cheaters and cooperators. He found that it didn’t pay to be too innocent, because groups of cheats could easily move in and take over. However, groups of crooks would likewise cannibalize themselves. The population would thus bounce back and forth between the two poles until it settled on a nice balance. The innocents wisen up, and the crooks stay creative. In lecture hall evolution, tattle-tales will be naturally selected when the cheating gets out of hand.

We’re not at that point yet. In my quest to become better acquainted with the early letters of the alphabet, I sit for exams and watch the cheaters leave for the bathroom, peek into their bookbags, read off the backside of their water bottles. And from within, a slow, seductive voice whispers to me.

“Don’t do it. Be a man. Take the goddamned C+.”

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