Academic Dishonesty and the Moral Justifications

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Academic dishonesty is becoming more widespread as academic curriculum are becoming more cutthroat and difficult. College students are using innovative ways to cheat whether it is buying papers online, storing test answers in an advanced calculator, or merely copying answers from a neighbor’s exam. Although the methods of cheating are evolving, the justifications to cheat are relatively stagnant. Bandura (1999, p. 194) created an umbrella term that covers all types of moral justifications and consequences: “disengagement may center on the reconstrual of the conduct itself so it is not viewed as immoral, the operation of the agency of action so that the perpetrators can minimize their role in causing harm, the consequences that flow from actions, or how the victims of maltreatment are regarded by devaluing them as human beings and blaming them for what is being done to them”. Moral disengagement allows an individual to disassociate his or her actions from the consequences of those actions (Cory, 2015). Bandura divided the moral justifications into seven different categories: euphemistic labeling, advantageous comparison, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, dehumanization, distortion/disregard of consequences, and attribution of blame. All of these justifications involve an external locus of control, meaning the perpetrators will blame something or someone else other than the cheater him/herself (Detert, Trevino, & Sweitzer, 2008).

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Euphemistic Language

Euphemistic language refers to the act of changing language to decrease the severity of the actions committed. Examples of euphemistic language include “letting workers go” instead of simply firing them or borrowing a friend’s paper for a class as opposed to plagiarizing. Students who exhibit euphemistic language in an academic setting to downplay the severity of their actions are less likely to feel guilty and more likely to blame others for committing this deed. The use of euphemistic language removes the responsibility from the perpetrator and creates a barrier. Hence, the barrier helps remove the blame from the perpetrator to some outside force.

Advantageous Comparison

Advantageous comparison refers to the act of making one behavior look better by comparing it with a more frightful alternative. Studies have shown that students who often find themselves in schools and communities that value academic achievement and credentialing over learning or development in other areas are more likely to cheat than students who are not in a rigorous academic environment (Galloway, 2012). Students may justify cheating by stating have they not cheated, their GPA would plummet. They may feel they would lag behind other students in the race for success. However, students who have a propensity to learn and seek personal development are less likely to cheat than students who view work as a way to end or seek to outperform their classmates (Anderman, Griesenger, & Westerfield, 1998).

Displacement of Responsibility and Diffusion of Responsibility

Displacement of responsibility refers to the act of transferring the responsibility of an action onto someone else. This is most common in the workplace. Workers may justify embezzling money from a corporation if their supervisor told them to do so. This is relatively uncommon in academic cheating because students normally cannot blame someone else in a higher position. However, diffusion of responsibility is one of the most common types moral disengagement among students regarding academic dishonesty. Students often justify cheating by stating that everybody else is doing it. “When everyone is responsible, no one really feels responsible” (Bandura, 1999, p. 198). McCabe and Trevino (1993) suggested that peer cheating has the most significant impact on a student’s choice to cheat. Shu, Gino, and Bazerman (2011) found higher levels of moral disengagement when one considered one’s own dishonest behavior in contrast to when one considered the dishonest behavior of another person. One becomes more morally lenient when viewing his/her dishonesty compared to viewing others’ dishonesty.

Dehumanization

Dehumanization is the act of removing human qualities from people. Once dehumanized, the subjects are no longer viewed as people with human characteristics, but as sub-humans (Kelman, 1973). Students are more likely to cheat off a stranger than a friend when taking an exam because it is easier to dehumanize an unknown human than an acquaintance (Bandura, 1999). Dehumanization is much more common in the workplace, especially if people work in a corporation where people are less likely to see clients they may be stealing from.

Distortion/ Disregard of Consequences

Distortion or disregard of consequences mean either not fully understanding what the consequences of dishonesty are, or simply not caring enough. The lack of clarity and consequences, or open acceptance can misguide students to feel cheating is acceptable (Galloway, 2012). Quite often teachers or administrators do not enforce the academic integrity policy, thus students dismiss the potential consequences when caught cheating. More academic institutions have been piloting programs that outline what cheating is, why it is wrong, and what the potential consequences are. To dissuade students cheating, faculty should hold not only themselves but also their students to the highest standards of conduct (Forsha, 2017). Galloway (2012) recommended faculty should instruct the history of ethics and understand the development of philosophical thoughts on morality, as this provides a foundation to develop character.

Attribution of Blame

Attribution of blame is blaming someone else for a deed. Most often, students blame teachers for cheating in an academic setting. Teachers have one of the largest effects on students’ perception of academic integrity (Robinson & Glanzer, 2017). Students are more likely to cheat if they deem the teacher unfair, hands out incredibly difficult tests, and/or if the teacher is not relatable. Determining whether a teacher is relatable is extremely subjective, however, students argue if the teacher is relatable or fair, he/she is less likely to cheat in that class.

Current Study

Detert’s et al. (2008) research supported the concept that moral disengagement mediates the relationships between these individual differences and unethical decisions. Previous research demonstrates there is a distinct difference in cheating behaviors among students in different years, specifically first year students against students in other years. Olafson, Schraw, and Kehrwald (2014) conducted a study on students who were accused of cheating at a large institution. Of those who were accused of cheating, approximately 43.5% were first year students,15% of them were sophomores, 9% of them were juniors, and 24% of them were seniors. Clearly first year students made up almost half of the sample in that study. Another study conducted on undergraduate students found that the lower the GPA average and the younger the student, the higher the level of cheating (Klein, Levenburg, McKendall, & Mothersell, 2006). In addition, of those who reported cheating in graduate school, 23.4% did it in the first year, 11.5% did in the second year, 5.0% in the third year, 2.5% in the fourth year (Wajda-Johnston, Handal, Brawer, & Fabricatore, 2001). However, another study conducted in China concluded that third year students were significantly more likely to accept plagiarism (M = 3.58, SD = 0.10) than first year students (M = 3.86, SD = 0.09) (Hu & Lei, 2015). 

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