‘HARMLESS’ CHEATING IN THE LAB LINKED TO MISBEHAVIOUR IN REAL LIFE

01 Nov 2018

Breaking the rules. Almost daily we hear about someone who has cheated to get ahead – students using a study app to get answers for a final exam; two more car companies caught fudging on emissions data; and Facebook employees fired for taking private user data for the purposes of stalking. 

These acts are costly to society, prompting much research to get a better understanding of the determinants of lying, cheating and dishonesty. This includes a new study from the University of Michigan and the University of Zurich, which connects cheating for financial gain in the lab with misbehaviour in school. The study is published in the November 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.

‘Several studies have documented relationships between behaviour in the lab and behaviour in the real world’, says Alain Cohn, assistant professor of information, U-M School of Information. ‘We extend this body of research by showing that there is also such a relationship in the domain of cheating for personal financial gain. Thus, the knowledge generated from lab experiments on cheating has the potential to generalise to other situations.’ 

The researchers asked 162 middle and high school students from eight classes in two Swiss schools to record results from flipping a coin in a private setting with no observers present. Each time the coin came up as heads, the students got to keep the money.

The researchers then asked teachers to report student behaviour in class on three measures: disruptiveness, non-completion of homework and absenteeism.

The result was a great number of the students took more coins than statistics suggest should have been possible, and they often were students that misbehaved at school.

‘A person who claims to have won on every single coin flip has likely cheated as the chance to win ten coin flips in a row is less than 0.1%’, says Michel Maréchal, associate professor of economics in Zurich. ‘The most likely outcome of an honest person is to win every other coin flip, that is five out of ten.’ 

Students took nearly 63% of the coins in the envelopes, which the researchers estimate means nearly 26% were misreported. Female students were more honest than males, and middle school students were more likely than those in high school to cheat.

The researchers find that the level of cheating was positively associated with the three school behaviours. Subjects who took more than five coins scored 72% higher on disruptiveness in class, 69% higher on non-completion of homework and 61% higher on absenteeism relative to the other subjects.

‘Our results suggest that we can use controlled lab experiments as a tool to get a better understanding of different forms of rule-violating behaviour in the “real world”’, Cohn says.

Laboratory Measure of Cheating Predicts School Misconduct’ by Alain Cohn and Michel Maréchal is published in the November 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.