There were only 10 problems, and for one of them, my answer just didn’t seem right. I clearly had not fully grasped the power of compounding interest, because when I looked at my returns after “10 years at 8.5%, reinvesting the dividends” I kept thinking, “that can’t be right, that’s way too high.”
So I did what many motivated, grade-conscious students do in that circumstance. I carefully peeked at the person’s work next to me, and copied his work.
I got my just desserts–turns out my original answer was correct. And to this day, I still remember that moment and wince, wishing I could have had the fortitude to keep my head down.
My school had an honor code like most other colleges, and my behavior certainly didn’t match it. But in truth, a lot of high achieving students have at one time or another behaved unethically on their work–copying homework problems, cheating on a test, grabbing paragraphs for their essay from the Internet. Most of them will tell you it’s wrong, but they do it anyway.
Why such paradoxical behavior? Some people will say it’s because students are conditioned to care more about the grade than the learning process, so it’s all about the outcome (probably true) and some will say it’s because we judge others most on the actions we’re ashamed of ourselves (maybe true too.) But it’s also because self-control takes a lot of mental energy, and when you have a mentally draining task, like a hard test, in front of you, it takes additional energy not to look at the paper next to you.
Honor codes are interesting things, because sometimes we set up people to fail them. Willpower, or self-control isn’t limitless. In 1998, Roy Baumeister found that when adults had to exert willpower in one situation (resisting cookies) they did worse on the cognitively demanding geometry task they were asked to do later. Stressing your self-control in one area made it more difficult to exert self-control in another. Putting people in a position of academic challenge, and then telling them not to do something that will help them to succeed, places an additional stress on them. They need to exert the will to keep working and the self-control not to cheat.
So when a professor emails out a final problem set and then tells students, “only take three hours on this and talk to no one” it puts a behavioral test on top of an academic one. A lot of people will pass it–but for the ones who struggle most with the content, both tests become harder.
This plays out again and again with some of our youngest students. Go into a kindergarten or 1st grade class and you can already see 5 and 6 year olds covertly glancing at their neighbor’s papers when they’re doing an assessment. Watching them labor over how to form letters and spell words, and also struggle not to copy their classmate’s work, highlights how the cognitive load, the need for willpower to keep trying and not to peek–double up.
Of course we should follow the rules and uphold our ethical responsibilities. As a 19 year old, it was a reasonable expectation that I keep my eyes to my own work. But people’s environments have a lot to do with their success or failure. For assessments, that might mean privacy dividers, proctored tests, desks in rows. For assignments it might mean more projects that encourage collaboration, or chances to revise and fix-up work.
Hoping the other person will do what you want, regardless of the situation, is sometimes the easier path at the start. But creating a setting that encourages positive behavior is ultimately less stressful for everyone, because it allows people to focus on what really matters–the task at hand–rather than on controlling their impulses.