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Why Do Business Students Cheat More?

-Brea Mealey ’13

Cheating has plagued the academic world since the origin of the education system.  However, many believe that cheating in recent years has become both more frequent and more tolerated in American education.  In their 2013 Best Article of the Year in the Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education, “We All Think It’s Cheating, But We All Won’t Report It,” Brent Smith and Feng Shen, associate and assistant professors, respectively, of marketing at the Haub School of Business, examine the presence of cheating in business education. Smith and Shen’s study is unique in that they not only investigate students’ ability to recognize cheating, but they also examine students’ willingness to report it. I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Smith and, through our discussion, delved more deeply into the relationship between academic major and cheating, the driving forces behind cheating, and how to encourage academic honesty.

National survey data regularly show that business majors cheat more frequently than non-business majors. Marketing majors, in particular have distressing rates of academic dishonesty. According to Dr. Smith, business students often embody a results-oriented mindset in which they focus on effectiveness, efficiency, and meeting goals in the short-term. Similarly, business practices can be conducive to taking shortcuts. People focus on whether or not the results were achieved, not how they were achieved. Smith sees this way of thinking as pervasive among business students, and he thinks it contributes to their willingness to engage in acts of academic dishonesty.

Dr. Smith believes that cheating extends far beyond the academic world; it is supported by society at large. Children are constantly surrounded by cheating scandals, whether it is in professional sports or on Wall Street. Dr. Smith states, “Everyone is trying to score on the metrics, the measures of success, without considering integrity.” Many individuals have become desensitized to the practice of cheating and its violation of ethical standards.  The public too has changed in how it perceives cheating. Dr. Smith believes the public often celebrates successful people, particularly in athletics, despite the fact that some may cheat, and it sensationalizes scandal. These values influence how children think during their fundamental stages of development and are often already engrained by the time they enter school.

Fear of failure is another factor that promotes cheating. However, Dr. Smith says, “There are those transformative experiences you have to go through in life to really come into your own.” By cheating, students are essentially robbing themselves of a challenge that will improve their development.

A key finding in Smith and Shen’s study is that students perceive ethical problems, but they oftentimes trivialize them. They fail to recognize or believe that the ethical problem is a “big deal.” Consequently, they are less likely to report acts of cheating.

Through understanding some of the factors that contribute to cheating, faculty, students, and parents can work towards reducing cheating. Dr. Smith believes that teachers must address cheating in their relationship with students by engaging them in the development of standards for integrity.   Smith suggests that when “people have a say in the standards they have to live by, they stay closer to those standards.” In addition, development of the virtue of honesty must begin at home and be reinforced by the public. Parents should be involved in their children’s ethical development and encourage them to avoid, recognize, and report cheating. There is much work to do, but the goal is clear: “It is not getting people to understand what counts as cheating; it is getting people to think about how to respond to it.”

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