It was the final exam of my freshman year. I was taking Intro to Psych, and I had just pulled an all-nighter. After a few minutes, I began to notice some odd paper shuffling off to my left. The kid next to me was carelessly using a small cheat sheet, dense with definitions written in 8 point font. I was infuriated. For one thing, the test was curved, so a perfect score hurt everyone. I was also pissed that the cheater would never get caught. We were taking the test in a huge lecture hall, and the grad students monitoring the exam were a distant blur at the front of the class. I briefly contemplated turning the cheater in – he looked so smug and satisfied – before realizing that I was running out of time, and had better finish answering the multiple choice questions.
My other memory of cheating is from the 6th grade. It was pre-algebra class, and we had a pop quiz every Friday. The teacher was a little lazy, and had us correct our own tests. To prevent cheating, we always switched papers with the student on our left. Luckily for me, my good friend Matt sat directly to my left. Let’s just say Matt was a lenient grader. I was a cheater.
These memories of cheating were brought back to me as I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest Talk of the Town in the New Yorker. Gladwell’s argument is simple: he believes that the zero-tolerance policy of schools is a bad idea. Expelling a kid for cheating, or taking drugs, or violating the strict rules of the NCAA is bad policy. According to Gladwell, it’s time we restore leniency and what he calls “discretionary justice”:
Making a fetish of personal accountability conveniently removes the need for institutional accountability. (We court-martial the grunts who abuse prisoners, not the commanding officers who let the abuse happen.) To acknowledge that the causes of our actions are complex and muddy seems permissive, and permissiveness is the hallmark of an ideology now firmly in disgrace. That conservative patron saint Whittaker Chambers once defined liberalism as Christ without the Crucifixion. But punishment without the possibility of redemption is worse: it is the Crucifixion without Christ.
I couldn’t agree more. For starters, there is now clear evidence that a zero-tolerance policy doesn’t work. As Gladwell notes, “a Tennessee study found that after zero-tolerance programs were adopted by the state’s public schools the frequency of targeted offenses soared.” Teenagers act rashly, and are famously bad at incorporating long term consequences – like being expelled – into their decision making process. (This is why adolescents drive too fast and start smoking.) Furthermore, draconian punishments deter snitches. I didn’t rat on the cheater next to me in Psych class because I didn’t want to be responsible for ruining his life.
The other reason to exercise leniency is that everybody cheats. In a comprehensive set of studies done in the 1920′s, the psychologists Hugh Hartshorne and M.A. May watched schoolchildren between the ages of 8 and 16 take a variety of different tests. What they found was both shocking and obvious: virtually every child was willing to cheat under certain conditions. Rather than there being distinct groups of consistently honest and consistently dishonest children, Hartshorne and May discovered that cheating rates depended almost entirely on context. Some kids cheated on spelling tests, other kids cheated on math tests. Some kids cheated on Fridays, other kids only cheated when the teacher left the room.
This old study should make us rethink our current zero tolerance policies. Expelling a kid for a single infraction only makes sense if we expect that kid to violate the rules again and again. But honesty is only an innate trait to the extent that everybody is capable of not being honest. It’s only a question of when. Instead of focusing on the cheater, we should focus on the circumstances that make cheating so widespread. Perhaps we should stop giving exams in lecture halls.