An interesting chapter by DiPietro in the new book “To Improve the Academy, Volume 28” (1) discusses a variety of theoretical frameworks used to explain academic dishonesty. He lays out five such theories, and then places student behavior in their contexts. These theories include deterrence theory, rational choice theory, neutralization theory, planned behavior theory and situational ethics.
1. Deterrence theory: this theory proposes that cheating is a function of the severity of the consequences. Thus, if we want to prevent or stop certain behaviors, we need to punish them with consequences so severe it will act as a discouragement. Such punishments might include failing the assignment or course, probation or expulsion. This is based on past research demonstrating that when people believe they can engage in a behavior with no or minimal consequences, they are likely to do so. One of the chief challenges here is that, due to the increased time and effort involved, instructors may not wish to report the behavior. There are also cultural determinants; Western students fear expulsion, while Asian students seem to fear public humiliation.
2. Rational Choice theory: Here, this theory treats dishonest actions as the result of decisions that we make as rational agents; that is, we weight pros and cons of an action, and based on how we assess the alternatives, we make our choice. We might look at this as a kind of cost-benefit analysis: is the effort necessary to cheat worth the cost of getting caught and being punished?
3. Neutralization theory: This theory hypothesizes that students are able to engage in morally inappropriate acts without damage to their self-esteem if they are able to rationalize the act and consider it morally neutral rather than wrong. I think of a recent news report about a young author charged with plagiarizing from an existing text who stated that she was using the material as a “mash-up”; that is, taking someone else’s words and placing them into he rown work as part of her creative process. If we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is not morally wrong, we may then proceed with doing the actual act. Thus, efforts to prevent cheating should work on deneutralizing it, emphasizing the moral incorrectness of the act. We should focus on personal responsibility.
4. Planned Behavior theory: This theorizes that cheating happens because of the opportunity as well as the intention to treat. Thus, we need to take efforts to reduce the opportunity to cheat, perhaps be increasing our vigilance during exams, using additional proctors and exam versions, and by increasing education on the value of integrity and honesty. Example: place open seats between students; this reduces opportunity.
5. Situational Ethics: This appears to be related to rational choice theory and is a direct outgrowth of John Stuart Mills and his initial utilitarianism. That is, each student has to weight the specifics of his or her situation; could I cheat here because of these reasons? Can I accept the risk knowing the potential benefit? What are the issues I am concerned with here? If I do poorly, I could lose my scholarship and be sent home; thus, maybe I need to do something to increase my chance of passing, and this might include cheating. It is hard to address this because each student will bring his or her specific issues to the consideration.
These approaches help us understand something about why students cheat, but we do need to ensure consistency in our approach and in our investigations of possible cheating. None of us are naïve about this; we know it happens and we take what measures we can. Moral training and a focus on the integrity of being a doctor may help us to diminish the cheating that undoubtedly occurs.
1. DiPietro M. Theoretical frameworks for academic dishonesty. In: Nilson LB, Miller JE. To Improve the Academy, Vol. 28. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010:250-262