Cheating in School: Traits Inherited From Our Ancestors?

Posted: October 19, 2011 in Altruism, Ethics, Free Will, Honesty, Human Nature
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Sam Harris

Sam Harris, author of "Lying" and "The End of Faith"

This is one of the first essay assignments I had for my composition class.  Since I was pleased with the results and received an A on the paper, and since school has prevented me from blogging since my first entry, I figured posting my essay as blog number two couldn’t hurt.  I really have not had time for any recreational writing since school started, so chances are that my next few entries will also be cut-paste jobs from various assignments.

Here is my untitled essay on the topic of cheating.  Everyone in class had to write specifically on cheating, but we were free to tackle the topic from our own angle.  I selected an evolutionary basis of cheating (surprised?), and probably could have made this a 20-page paper given enough time.

“Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential:  We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy.”

Thus begins Sam Harris’s 2011 essay, appropriately titled “Lying.”  Before I read this recently published essay, I had already been contemplating an approach to cheating (and lying) from an evolutionary perspective.  In pondering the content of my own essay, I began wondering if perhaps the speed of human progress had outpaced the ability of our species to “weed out” unnecessary genes (specifically genes that influence behavior) or if we are currently in an evolutionary transitional phase much like we are in other respects, such as continuing to adjust to our bipedal method of locomotion (in the form of our spine’s propensity for giving us problems and our vulnerability to hernias) and omnivorous digestive tract (as evidenced by the vermiform appendix).

In examining the reasons for cheating, one must examine the reasons for lying.  In Psychology Today, June 2009, Dr. Carl Pickhardt wrote an article that associates each instance of cheating with not one ethical affront but three – sneaking, lying, and stealing (“You sneak to conceal what you are up to…lie about what you have done…and steal credit for performance you did not earn.”).  I believe that most students who make the decision to cheat do not necessarily consciously decide that they want to commit the aforementioned battery of offenses, even though some surveys have shown cheating to be at near-epidemic levels with well over half of high school students engaging in some form of plagiarizing or, more common with the ease and availability of information on the Internet, simple cut-and-paste jobs.  To many students, it seems, cheating is a means to an end, a way to ensure their economic survival in a highly competitive world, and the assumption that “My parents would rather I get dishonest A than an honest B.” (Pickhardt, 2009).  It would appear that from the cheater’s perspective, only one offense – sneaking/cheating – has been committed (and is minimized or justified); stealing is hardly a consideration when the attitude towards information is that “it’s all just floating around out there”; and lying is probably the last thing on a cheater’s mind when the intent is to be convincing enough of the validity of one’s work that lying about the cheating only needs to be addressed on an as-needed basis (and hopefully not ever!).

What purpose could lying and cheating possibly have served our ancestors?  Were they that inherently selfish, to the point that our genes today are still being steered towards a deceptive nature?  Many theories exist, but most involve deception being used by the earliest hominids as a safeguard against rival groups – there was no unconditional trust, no feeling of, “Hey, we’re the same species, let’s work together,” and thus protection of the clan/family took precedence over forming any preemptive alliances.  Looking across other species, we see trickery everywhere:  Camouflaging techniques of mantises and cuttlefish, mimicry apparent in harmless snakes “disguised” as their venomous counterparts or insects masquerading as wasps and ants, and the “brood parasitism” of the infamous cuckoo.  Acknowledging that unintentional and unknowing evolutionary developments such as camouflage can hardly be compared to deliberate, calculated deception, we can soon turn our focus back to our pre-human protagonists – yes, those lying bastards, the ones that might have corrupted our children with their uninhibited immorality!

In his essay, Harris defines a lie as “intentionally mislead[ing] others when they expect honest communication.”  Teachers and professors expect honesty from their students – not just the obvious loathing of cheating to get ahead in their class, but honesty in feedback on lectures and lessons, questions on assignments, and so forth.  In the face of such statistics like above, noting occurrences from one-half to as much as three-quarters engaging in some form of cheating, it would seem that honesty is going the way of the rotary phone.  Actually, instead of making a comparison to a near-obsolete technology, perhaps it would be more appropriate to question if dishonesty is now rewarded in our society, with truly honest people receiving more indifferent treatment than exaltation.

In “Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn’t Pay,” Amar Bhide and Howard Stevenson illustrate examples of dishonesty in American society being either rewarded or forgiven; well-established and powerful companies oftentimes earn back trust simply by being the entities they are, namely ones that provide large numbers of jobs and are a key part of the economy.  A recent comedy film, The Invention of Lying, turned a fictional world where nobody was capable of lying on its head when the lead character commits the title act, leading to a downward spiral of the world questioning their morals and values, and eventually the need for the establishment of religion to get people to act decent to one another again.  A group of cultural pranksters known as “The Yes Men” attempt to humiliate corporations and politicians by impersonating personnel representing them and by creating phony press conferences and websites.  Furthermore, “there is no compelling economic reason to tell the truth or keep one’s word” (Bhide and Stevenson, 1990), especially when dishonest companies and governments set the bar with their behavior, creating a chain of deceit down to the smaller companies and individuals struggling to get by…“if the big guys on top can’t play fair, why should we?”

Ironically, it appears that not only do we have a biological basis for deceptive behavior, but an existing natural phenomenon (which also doubles as a moral philosophy) known as reciprocal altruism points towards a natural source for honest communication.   Quite simply, reciprocal altruism is a “tit-for-tat,” quid pro quo scenario in which both parties end up better off by both paying into the situation minimally (symbiotic relationships such as those exhibited by “cleaner fish” that remove parasites from larger fish that would normally prey on them, resulting in a meal for themselves – although in a deceptive twist, there exists a fish that mimics the cleaner fish, but is in fact itself a parasite masquerading as beneficial).  This Golden Rule of nature has its parallels in human artifices such as religion and philosophy, a “do unto others” mentality that has popped up independently in some form in nearly every culture (indeed, according to anthropologist Donald Brown’s Human Universals (1991), both positive and negative reciprocity are universal concepts).  While it would be difficult to prove that the most successful liars and cheats are devoid of any genetic inclination towards altruistic behavior, the aptly named psychological concept of self-deception could, in theory, cause the deceiver to become completely unconscious of dishonesty, since not being aware of “immoral” behavior would make it easier to mask telltale signs of deception.

While our evolution may be haunting us with these lingering tendencies to deceive, or at the very least only tell half-truths, our evolution is also steering us towards behavior where extending trust and being trustworthy has a better payoff than just being a selfish ass; whereas the latter would have certainly received “the lion’s share” in a competitive survival scenario, the widespread cooperation that we as a species are beginning to exhibit in this era of a globally connected planet with access to information like never before, coupled with our tremendous decision-making capacity and analytical nature, should allow us to jettison our instinctive impulse to cheat others in order to get ahead.  That said, there will undoubtedly always be some degree of cheating in schools (and everywhere); it is inevitable, much like the fringe ideas and deviant behaviors that have always clung to the coattails of civilization, even in eras of great enlightenment, and have occasionally halted its progress.

As to content, your view of human nature seems rather reductive to me.  The idea that we can trace complex human behaviors back to genetics is, I think, pretty much out of favor.  We don’t, in fact, do much purely by instinct.  Most behavior is learned, and our behaviors are heavily influenced by our cultures.  So I suspect this approach is rather suspect from the beginning.  And we live in our culture, now.  It is unclear whether cheating is a problem today in schools in China, or Africa, or Egypt, or anywhere else.  To suggest there is evolutionary causation, you would need to show commonality across many cultures, today and historically.  And then, one would eventually need to identify a mechanism.  Perhaps closer to the point might be to consider what it is in our culture that makes so many people believe cheating is wrong (even when they do it) and, as Bhide and Stevenson point out, keep most people fundamentally honest even in the face of evidence they will not necessarily be rewarded.

  1. […] view of the will, and it’s refreshing to have at least one professor who is a determinist (here’s the blog detailing the view of my other professor who thinks this view is largely “out of […]

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