When I was an undergraduate at Princeton, every paper we turned in had to have the honor code written out and then signed. Now as a professor at Wake Forest, I make my class recite aloud with me before each exam our entire honor code and then sign it.
Signing an honor code can, among other things, serve as a moral reminder. As we know from both ordinary life and recent experimental findings, most of us are willing to cheat to some extent if we think it would be rewarding and we can get away with it. At the same time, we also want to think of ourselves as honest people and genuinely believe that cheating is wrong. But our more honorable intentions can be pushed to one side in our minds when tempting opportunities arise to come out ahead, even if by cheating. What a moral reminder does, then, is help to place our values front and center in our minds.
This is borne out by recent findings in the lab. In a widely cited study, Nina Mazar at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University and her colleagues had one group of students take a 20-problem test where they would be paid 50 cents per correct answer. It was a hard test — students averaged only 3.4 correct answers. A second group of students took the same test, but they graded their own work and reported their “scores” with no questions asked. The average in this group was 6.1 correct answers, suggesting some cheating. The third and most interesting group, though, began by signing an honor code and then took the test, followed by grading their own work. The result? An honorable 3.1 correct answers. Cheating was eliminated at the group level. Signing the honor code did the job.
Studies of honor codes and cheating have typically been conducted in face-to-face environments. But as we settle into the routine of online instruction, we should consider trying to extend the impact of an honor code virtually as well.
Honor codes won’t eliminate cheating. Deeply dishonest students will not be deterred. But fortunately, the research confirms what experience suggests: Most students are not deeply dishonest.
Christian B. Miller (@CharacterGap) is a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, the director of the Honesty Project and the author, most recently, of “The Character Gap: How Good Are We?”
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